Restorative justice, restoring communities

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January 7, 2008
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
A program that unites offenders and community members looks to the future

STEVENS SQUARE — It was like returning to the scene of the crime for Matt and Peter.

Both in their early 20s, the two men were ticketed at different times but in almost the same location — near the intersection of Hennepin Avenue and South 5th Street — for the same misdemeanor offense: public urination.

Weeks later, on a Saturday morning in December, they found themselves just two blocks away in a lower-level conference room in Butler Square. Jake, slightly older, sat next to them. He was cited for a misdemeanor drug offense in September while visiting his girlfriend Downtown.

Together, they formed one part of a circle. On the other side of the circle were three women, all of whom lived or worked Downtown.

Over the course of two hours, Matt, Peter and Jake admitted to their offenses. They heard how seemingly minor crimes make Downtown visitors feel unsafe and tarnish residents' pride in their neighborhood. In the end, all three men agreed to make amends through community service, a donation or a letter of apology.

For a decade now, Restorative Justice Community Action (RJCA) has brought low-level offenders face-to-face with the community members affected by their crimes.

These community conferences are a way to address so-called livability crimes — like public drinking, drug possession or littering — outside of the court system. Offenders who complete the program avoid a fine or possible jail time, and keep a clean record.

Executive Director Phyllis Saltzman said numbers from the Minnesota Department of Corrections show the process has an impact on many offenders.

"Seventy-five percent of the people who go through our program do not have a reoccurrence in the criminal justice system after three years," Saltzman said. "That's pretty darn significant."

RJCA currently serves 15 neighborhoods in and around Downtown, but Saltzman, who joined the non-profit organization in November, hopes to expand its reach. Neighborhoods around Uptown, for instance, soon could use community conferencing to deal with graffiti, noisy partying and other livability crimes.



A 'meaningful experience'

Lois Conroy, a prosecutor with the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office, said victims and offenders accomplish something in a community conference that is very hard to achieve in the courtroom.

When it works, offenders not only admit wrongdoing, they begin to understand the impact their actions had. They also make a promise to repair some of the damage.

"It's difficult for somebody to have that kind of transformation in the courtroom," Conroy said.

Artika Tyner, one of the three women at Butler Square that Saturday morning, said conferencing was a "healing process" for community members, too.

A clinical law fellow at the University of St. Thomas, Tyner once was also a student on the Downtown campus. Like others who work, shop or study Downtown, Tyner experienced livability crimes but had no real role in addressing them.

"Definitely for me it's a meaningful experience to participate [in the community conference]," she said. "… I think a lot of the time members of the community feel voiceless."

Conroy said another important aspect of restorative justice was the potential cost savings for the criminal justice system.

A prosecutor spends "minimal time" referring a nonviolent offender to RJCA, as compared to preparing a court case, she said. And if offenders stay out of the court system — as the organization's research indicates — that means less work for police, probations officers and prosecutors.

"It does create cost savings," she said.



Laying the groundwork

RJCA was founded in 1997 as the Central City Neighborhoods Partnership Restorative Justice Program, a collaboration between the Stevens Square, Downtown, Loring Park and Elliot Park neighborhoods. It incorporated as RJCA in 2005.

Board of Directors Member Mike Stewart said most cases referred to RJCA originate Downtown and at the University of Minnesota. That may change, though, as the organization builds a presence in other neighborhoods.

"North Minneapolis has been probably the most consistent voice of need," Stewart said, "but it's just a matter of tying into the neighborhoods and the systems up there to really introduce the concept [of restorative justice]."

Saltzman said expansion into more Northside neighborhoods — RJCA currently serves three — is a priority for the organization. But they also want to expand community conferencing in Southwest, particularly in the neighborhoods around Uptown.

Saltzman said RJCA's growth was driven by need. The organization relies on crime data and police input to determine which areas of the city experience the highest rates of livability crime.

Just as important, though, was a community's desire to participate, Saltzman added. Before the first conference, RJCA's community coordinators must recruit volunteers, locate meeting spaces and find neighborhood groups that need volunteers, so that offenders have a place to do their community service.

"A lot of groundwork has to be laid," she said.



Leading change

Stewart said a hallmark of the restorative justice process — something that sets it apart from the machinery of the criminal justice system — is the community members' concern for the wellbeing of their neighborhoods. Instead of just punishing offenders, they often look for ways to help offenders improve their lives and become contributing members of the community.

"It puts people into the community and offers them the opportunity to get involved in the community in a very positive way," Stewart said. "We've seen examples where that's had a tremendous impact on peoples' lives."

Reach Dylan Thomas at dthomas@mnpubs.com or 436-4391.