True Justice for Young Offenders: My Experiences with Restorative Justice Circles
Updated: Apr 14, 2019
Circles of Cariño
In my native language, Spanish, we use the word cariño as an expression of care and affection. It is a critical component of my restorative justice work utilizing circles as a place of healing sanctuary. In this safe haven, every stakeholder is an equal participant, including myself as mediator. Our dialogue is honest and respectful. We practice deep listening in an environment of openness and trust. In the safety of the circle of cariño, youth are empowered to contemplate how to repair the harm caused by their actions.
The Restorative Justice Alternative
For a first offense of the youth perpetrator, the police officer present at the scene can refer him or her to a restorative justice solution. This alternative to traditional disciplinary procedures involves rehabilitation, inclusion and reintegration in contrast to retributive or adversarial methods. Restorative justice is about healing and empowering the injured person while holding the offender accountable. It empowers youth to take responsibility for and understand the seriousness of the harm caused by their actions as they learn important lessons. Restorative justice educates, not criminalizes. It helps narrow the gulf between the injured party and the offender. And it encourages dialogues among all stakeholders, who must mutually agree on a restorative outcome.
Court hearings and all felony records are public if the offender is at least 14 years old. In the USA, once juveniles become convicted felons, they face staggering obstacles. Students may be placed in alternative schools regardless of their academic achievement. College as well as employment applications require reporting any youth delinquency charges. Their families may also be impacted; in some jurisdictions, they can be evicted from public housing if their child has a criminal charge pending. If they are economically disadvantaged, responsible adults are unlikely to afford legal fees. Instead of feeling supported and empowered by the system, a disadvantaged teenager’s distrust of a punitive system is reinforced.
Teens’ brains are wired differently from those of adults. The frontal cortex—controlling rational behavior—is not fully developed until about age 25. Instead, their behavior is processed through the amygdala, which emits impulsive, risk-taking behavior. Accordingly, a teen who has committed a harmful infraction may still become an outstanding adult if provided with adequate support. The encouragement required as part of restorative justice processes accommodates and helps advance teen development. A well-conducted restorative justice process may well result in a significant growth spurt. Teenagers, self-centered by nature, may also become more altruistic.
Restorative Discipline vs. Traditional Discipline
The best way to deal with crime is to repair the broken ties between offenders, victims, and the community as a whole. An act of crime is a violation of people and interpersonal relationships instead of just a rule violation. It is considered a breach of mutual trust and a violation of the dignity due to each person. These violations create obligations for the wrongdoers to right the wrongs and thereby aim to repair the broken relationships. Crime is viewed in connection with other conflicts within the community. The emphasis shifts from a one-way transaction between the offender and the authorities to the interconnective exchange between the injured party, offenders and community. Restorative justice empowers and builds community through collaboration and engagement.
Restorative justice encourages honesty and candor rather than lying and defensiveness. The focus is on hopefulness rather than wrongdoings of the past. The needs and concerns of the injured party are central since offenders confront their actions using dialogue in the circle of cariño. Problem-solving is the focus, not blame. Accountability means taking personal responsibility for one’s actions instead of accepting punishment from authorities. Recidivism is considerably reduced thanks to empowering young people to gain awareness of the seriousness and impact of their actions and to decide how to restore the harm.
Justice does not end at the moment of conviction. It produces a collective effort in making things right. Amends transform into obligations. Material compensation is insufficient; emotional components must also be addressed.
The Facilitation Process
Restorative justice facilitation is a 3-part process: (1) a pre-conference meeting; (2) a conference; and (3) a written agreement as an outcome. At the pre-conference, I meet those who will be participating in the conference, review rules and expectations of the process, and help them practice what they will be sharing at the upcoming conference. The conference includes all stakeholders, including the youth offender, the injured party, family members, the referring police officer, and, if appropriate, other representative members of the community. Bottom-up inclusion involves the actual stakeholders – offenders, injured party, families and community – in deciding what the outcomes for the justice process should be. As a way of demonstrating equal participation in the process, each stakeholder is invited to speak to events from his or her own perspective, to explore who was impacted and how, and to consider how to repair the harm.
To conclude the process, the perpetrator often writes a well-reflected letter of apology. In most cases, he or she also agrees to spending a pre-determined time of community service. Financial restitution may be required, if applicable. When offenders comply with all stipulations of the agreement, their charges are dropped and all documents that could incriminate them are destroyed. This allows offenders to take responsibility for and learn from their mistakes without the harm that a criminal record might cause later in their lives. Northern Virginia Mediation Service serves youth from age 12 to 17 for their first offense, which may include infractions such as assault, larceny, property damage, or trespassing.
From Dean of Students to Restorative Justice Facilitator
As dean of students of a Northern Virginia school, the standard operating procedures of my role contrasted sharply with restorative justice principles. I was expected to implement punitive discipline for youth offenders without addressing prevention, support, enrichment, or restoration. But in my subsequent position, as Systems of Support Advisor, I became the school’s restorative justice coordinator. In training, I was struck by the powerful impact of non-punitive practices that help young people learn important lessons before they become adults.
Healing vs. Punishment
I am proud to facilitate a process that may bring healing to all the stakeholders involved in restorative justice sessions. When I first meet with offenders and their family members, the youth are often ashamed, anxious, somewhat defensive, and feeling that they have little control of a process that may turn punitive, judgmental, shameful, and humiliating. Most of the parents I meet with are distraught.
My first goal is to create a safe space that will put young people at ease so they will not be pressed to become defensive. This is often quite developed in youth who have faced poverty, discrimination by schools and justice systems, excessive and unnecessary punishment, and/or traumatic experiences. I also aim to make family members more at ease, not only to assist in their healing process, but also because their calm, encouraging support is crucial. At the onset of the process I share and demonstrate in my demeanor my fervent belief that all young people are works in progress; that I do not judge or mean to be punitive in any way; that because of their present developmental stage, they are meant to make mistakes that they can learn from. I also let them know that I will not allow anyone to belittle them in any way; that we will together explore the harm and ways to repair it in a circle of cariño.
One of the most healing and hope-filled aspects of this process is when juveniles and their parents find out that if the youth comply with what is agreed at the conference to repair the harm, there will be no track record of the offense, affording them a second chance. I will never forget how recently, when I explained this to a young man, he immediately released his visible tension and exhaled. He was ready to learn in a supportive, inclusive circle that would empower him to step up, own up, and give back.
I often bring a box of tissues to both parts of the process since in most cases at least one participant, often parent and teen, cries. Parents are often dismayed by this first offense of their child who has never been in serious trouble before. For many of them, fees of good lawyers are prohibitive. I remember how the low-income, immigrant parents of an offender cried throughout the entire preconference. These children are often their hope for a better life. When their child commits an offense, this hope is jeopardized. They fear that if their child is treated harshly by the system, their other children will also be harmed.
This process brings ultimate relief to parents who remember telling their teen perpetrator never to take anything from anyone, “not even a penny on the floor.” When I first contact parents, I hear sighs of relief as they discern caring and compassion in my voice. They begin to gain trust in an authority figure who wants to help their children. When the young offender first meets me in person, he or she quickly understands that my role is not to punish but to facilitate and to build a nonthreatening environment of care and kindness. This method goes much further in teaching lessons than does harshness.
Since restorative justice is primarily focused on restitution to the injured party, I work hard to prepare offenders, with the support of their family members, to face them. He or she must demonstrate understanding and remorse. Also required is a resolve to repair the harm and to cease harmful behavior in the future. At the end of the process, most of those who have been injured express that it has helped them feel more restituted. The experience empowers them to understand what drove a teen to harm them, express how they have been impacted, and contribute to the circle of cariño on how the offender may recompense.
I love the completion of the restorative justice process. The healing quality gained from the experience is palpable. Victims seem more relieved. Teens’ behavior matures and their thinking is more articulate and conscientious about how one’s actions impact society. They are more prepared to engage and make a difference in the community. Most parents are relieved and grateful for a systematic process that has helped—not destroyed the future of—their child and other family members.
My Perspective as an Educator
As Dean of Students, I was required to follow a matrix system with increasingly punitive consequences depending on the offense and the offender. But I felt a need to learn more about these students’ life stories and the reasons behind their behaviors, and in my attempts to do so, I found my perspectives on discipline changed dramatically. I realized that teens needed someone to provide understanding, support, and cariño. I also learned that they often do not trust authority figures within a bureaucratic school system. Consequently, they tend not to share personal details of their lives. Youth–particularly those living with hardship—need much more than a punitive, impersonal matrix.
One restorative justice case I facilitated involved a teenager who had hurt a child. I had already formed a negative opinion of her before we even met. When she shared her life circumstances with me, however, my perspective changed. The young woman had been left in charge of her single-parent household for several days while her mother was hospitalized. On the day of the wrongdoing, the teen’s younger sister had come home crying, claiming that someone was bullying her. When the teenager went to confront the bully, she was quite tall and represented an older person.
This case illustrates how important it is to understand a young person’s life and needs before making assumptions and following an impersonal matrix to deliver punishment. Thanks to the exchange that occurred during that circle, the offender had an opportunity to tell her story, allowing the injured girl and her family to understand what led her to carry out the harmful act. And she even took some responsibility for the wrongdoing. During the resolution portion of the meeting, it was the girl who was the most congenial. She asked that everyone forgive each other and move forward.
As an educator, I consider the restorative justice process filled with learning opportunities for teens who commit wrongdoing. Facilitators of restorative justice processes offer one more way, one last chance of helping a teenager become a responsible, law-abiding adult. Dedicated, skilled teachers and facilitators do not give up on the children they serve, including those who lead troubled lives.
One of the students I taught was trying to get away from gang life. When I asked my class to create an identity project, he refused to complete it because he had no positive image of himself. I told him that because he was not yet 18 years old, he still had plenty of time to lead a responsible life. I added that I believed in his potential. After much encouragement, he finally turned in his project. Eventually, he left gang life and aspired to become a child psychologist.
Parents often express how disappointed they feel about their children. I tell them that I can see their parental love. Their children, I continue, are inherently good but lost their way through mistakes and will one day earn their trust again.
Effective restorative justice facilitation is an organic process. It requires sensitive understanding, cariño, patience, and vision. I love to work with teenagers in this very important step of their lives that, far from criminalizing them, could offer them a chance to turn around their lives and those of their families.
The Importance of the Preconference
There are essential aspects of the preconference that could lead to a successful conference. As I meet with all participants at the pre-conference, I assess the strengths and challenges that each one may bring to the upcoming conference. To prevent the revictimization of the injured party, I do my best to understand and cultivate the young person’s levels of awareness, empathy and remorse. Moreover, I assess the kinds of support that the parents will bring to the integrity of the process. Last but not least, I discern the emotional level of the injured party and how to best channel his or her energy. I make sure that all stakeholders – including the injured party – understand the expectation that everyone in the circle must respect and support offenders. This requirement is critical as the offender takes responsibility for his or her action in the course of the conference.
In the preconference I aim to establish a safe space for each of the participants so they may feel as comfortable and relaxed as possible in expressing themselves and learning throughout the process. I encourage them to start thinking and practicing what they will share at the conference. Each person will bring their own interpretation of the event. If accounts differ, I provide guidance on how to repair the harm. I also encourage juveniles to write a detailed letter of apology to the victim, which they may read at the conference. None of the participatory aspects of this process is easy for youngsters. I always demonstrate my appreciation for their courage in contributing their best efforts to the process.
How We Prematurely Misjudge Youth
Imagine a young man who breaks into a house. He is a good student, talented in math, athletic, very polite, and a caring school and community leader. Many people look up to him, especially his younger brothers. He is an outstanding football player who interests college recruiters. But he made a mistake.
This young man was at a friend’s house when an adult there complained that they were too noisy. In response, they left the house. Not understanding where they were going, his friend kicked a door open and entered an apartment that he claimed was inhabited. For the next few hours, they remained in the apartment and played games; did not steal or touch anything. Nevertheless, he made a non-calculated mistake. Especially, he did not think before he acted; did not foresee all the trouble that this action would cause. If this had happened in other areas of Virginia, all his life prospects as well as his influence on the community could have been destroyed.
This young man and his mother did not trust the system and were fearful of what the system would do to him. But by participating in this process, he probably gained a sense that the system was more on his side. In an eloquent, well-thought-out letter, he apologized and took full responsibility for his actions. He explained what he had learned from his misdoing and what he would do differently if a similar circumstance occurred. For his redemption, he returned to the neighborhood and apologized. For community service, he used his football talent to mentor children in his own community.
I perceive teen offenders as whole individuals who, despite having made a mistake, have enormous potential. In my mind, they can still make a positive difference in the well-being of their families, surrounding communities and the world at large. I reflect on what I learned about the perpetrator at the preconference: positive traits, values, talents and interests, and what makes him or her unique. When community service is recommended during the restitution phase, I describe it as a significant endeavor that may turn into a constructive vocation or career that the teenager would enjoy and benefit from doing; not a punishment.
Considering the compulsivity and risk-taking behavior components of a young person’s brain, and the high level of energy that should be channeled constructively, this community engagement may serve as a crucial benchmark in a young person’s life. I believe that the world will become a better place because of the kinds of community service that these youth will engage in: A young lady whose anxiety is soothed by dogs works with service dogs; a young man who is admired in his community for his athletic skill mentors children; a sensitive, artistic young lady brings her art to hospice patients; a young man who is talented in math, tutors children; a young lady who is good in computers teaches computer skills to the elderly.
Intuiting what youth can genuinely give to the community requires deep listening and a belief that the restorative justice process can help youngsters fulfill their potential. Each time a juvenile succeeds through powerfully enriching processes, society will become safer and richer.
The Power of Language
The use of dialogue in restorative justice practice serves as an empowering catalyst for juveniles. In contrast, questions and response statements directed by a judge in a courtroom may feel like a disempowering monologue. Punishing messages received from traditional judicial channels trigger self-defense statements by disempowered youth and oftentimes result in increased tensions with adults. I consider it fundamental to use language that coaches the thinking of juveniles, stimulates their brain development, empowers and inspires them, and encourages maturity, healing, and hope.
Due in part to authoritarian adults imposing harsh judgments and discipline, most teenage offenders have had few opportunities to engage in restorative dialogues with them. I remember a naïve young woman who left home after midnight, without her parents’ permission, to meet a friend. Her outing quickly spiraled downward. She found herself in a car with young men she did not know and alcohol everywhere. One of them was an adult. She persisted throughout the night in asking to be taken home, without success. All the juveniles were in harm’s way following the decision of the adult. While all the others were savvy enough to escape the police, she was the only one caught and questioned for hours. While I guided her participation, I used non-judgmental questions with patience and deep listening to coach her in reexamining her actions.
The power of language in adolescent brain development can be further maximized by the kind of language they are requested to use. I always ask youth at the preconference if they are willing to write a thorough letter of apology before the conference. I suggest that in the letter they apologize, explain what led them to choose to act that way, what they have learned from the experience, how they would like to repair the damage caused by their actions, and demonstrate assurance that they will not repeat the behavior. They can either read it out loud if they can find the courage to do so, request someone else to read it, or just hand it to the injured party. The process of writing this letter aids the juvenile’s thinking process and conscience development. It prepares juveniles to more eloquently communicate at the conference, hopefully helping the victim feel as restituted as possible. When the offender reads this letter, it often adds great power to the conference.
Culture of Effective Accountability vs. Culture of Punitive, Retaliatory Harshness
A person who is still in a pre-adult developmental stage should not be regarded or treated as an adult. Locking up juveniles and ruining their and their families’ life perspectives is a waste of human potential. Non-restorative practices only accomplish superficial retribution for the injured party and do not make society safer. Societies that choose to invest their resources in punishing youth instead of supporting or rehabilitating them cannot truly care for their young.
Punishing young offenders without exploring or taking full advantage of all possible support systems and restorative practices that may help them become mentally healthy, productive adults is damaging, not only to teenagers, but also to their families, victims, and society in general. A reintegrative and hopeful circle of cariño accomplishes much more than a culture of harshness.
I wonder how many people in the justice and law enforcement systems, even injury victims, would not prefer a restorative justice process if it was their child who got in trouble. I wonder how many of them understand that “other people’s juvenile offenders” could have been their own.
The lyrics to Circle Round for Freedom, by Alice Di Micele, capture well the circle of cariño I hold so dear.
Circle ‘round for freedom, circle ‘round for peace,
For all of us imprisoned, circle for release,
Circle for the planet, circle for each soul,
For the children of our children,
Keep the circle whole.