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What’s the alternative? Restorative justice group discusses getting youth out of the courts

on November 19, 2014

In a church hall on Racine Street in North Oakland Monday night, the North Oakland Restorative Justice Council met to tackle the issue of how best to handle sentencing for young offenders. Led by Sister Tiffany E. Grant of Memorial Tabernacle Church, the meeting’s purpose was to discuss the Alternative Sentencing Pilot Project, which the group hopes to introduce in Oakland in early 2015.

Restorative justice is the principle that justice systems should focus on the needs of victims and offenders, as well as the community. It shifts the responsibility for sentencing offenders away from the police and the courts, and places it onto community members, who work with police to make sure that this system is used for appropriate crimes—typically, less serious offenses such as misdemeanor thefts. Restorative justice “focuses on the needs of the victim, as opposed to a punitive, retributive approach,” said Rose Elizondo, a co-founder of the NORJC who works with the San Quentin Interfaith Restorative Justice Roundtable. “It can bring a lot of healing to the community.”

Alternative sentencing is a key building block in restorative justice. Alternative sentencing diverts young offenders from the criminal justice system: rather than being tried in the courts, which could result in jail time and a criminal record, they go through a community-based program that in the NORJC’s pilot project would take the form of “circle discussion.” In these circles, the participants discuss the offense committed. Offenders listen to victims and victims listen to offenders in the presence of a trained mediator called a “circlekeeper.” Community members may also be present in the circle. The mediator and the participants make a plan that will help the offender to avoid breaking the law again, and agree on some form of restitution. The mediator agrees to hold the offender accountable for carrying out the plan.

NORJC members hope to run the pilot program in North Oakland, and to prove through the pilot that alternative sentencing is successful. This will support the council’s case for rolling out alternative sentencing across the city. The council anticipates that they will need buy-in from local businesses, the District Attorney, the mayor, and the police chief in order to get the City Attorney to agree to implementation, and hope to have a draft of their policy completed by January. In Sonoma County, only 10 percent of offenders who went through a similar alternative sentencing program re-offended, and over 90 percent of victims said they were satisfied with the sentencing, according to NORJC materials.

“Oakland is now seen as one of the restorative justice cities in the United States,” said Elizondo, which is largely due to the work of several local groups that have succeeded in introducing these processes in schools. Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth launched a 2007 pilot in West Oakland middle schools that mediated student conflicts and reduced suspension rates by 75 percent, according to a report by the Alameda County Health Care Agency. This group is also a member of the county’s School Health Services Coalition. In 2010, the Oakland school district board of directors passed a resolution to adopt restorative justice district-wide as an alternative to traditional methods of discipline.

Restorative justice, in the form of youth-mediated conflict resolution, was also pioneered at Children’s Hospital Oakland. Dr. Barbara Staggers, who heads up the Adolescent Medicine department at the hospital and attended the meeting Monday night, said that these programs had started in the late 1980s and early 90s. “We trained our first peer advocacy program from males who were diverted to us,” Staggers said. “They thought it would be easier to come to us than go to Camp Sweeney [Alameda County’s long-term facility for juvenile offenders], and boy, were they surprised when we were done with them!” None of the agreements that were reached through this program were ever broken, she added.

The pilot will focus on one or two police beats in North Oakland, with four to six offenders involved in the program’s first stages. Only offenders whose crimes do not exceed a certain seriousness will be considered for alternative sentencing. Elizondo said that typical offenses suitable for alternative sentencing would be stealing $25 worth of food, or cellphone theft. Captain Darren Allison, who attended the meeting as a representative of the Oakland Police Department, indicated he would be willing to refer offenses that go beyond petty theft. However, incidents involving gun violence may not be eligible for alternative sentencing.

Garry Malachi Scott, who goes by Malachi, is a circlekeeper at Alameda County Juvenile Hall and will lead circle training for the NORJC members who want to also become circlekeepers. Scott said that the group has already created “more of a realistic and a better approach when it comes to justice,” but that the purpose of alternative sentencing was to “support all the youth” in North Oakland.

Throughout the evening, the group split into three subcommittees that focused on policy, training, and outreach. The policy group will concentrate on drafting an agreement to take to the mayor and the city attorney. The outreach group will raise awareness of the pilot program, if it is implemented, and restorative justice among North Oakland residents; while the training group will coordinate the circles that will get victims and offenders to communicate.

The Alternative Sentencing Project will continue to meet regularly to plan for the pilot and to try to get approval from the city. The council hopes to implement the first stages by August, 2015.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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