Restorative Justice: low-level offenders make amends Downtown

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July 28, 2003 // UPDATED 11:00 am - April 30, 2007
By: Robyn Repya
Robyn Repya

Time-consuming, but satisfying, volunteers say; offenders get an option other than fines

Downtown worker Mike Stewart said living and working in the city, he sees people publicly intoxicated or selling drugs occasionally. "It doesn't feel safe -- I feel scared and angry," he said.

So Stewart decided to do something about it. He got involved with a program called Restorative Justice.

Program Manager Gena Gerard said Restorative Justice mandates community service for nonviolent low-level offenders, established at a community conference. Offenders make amends in lieu of fines and keep the offense off their record.

The conferences consist of facilitators, the offender and his or her supporters, and

residents who testify how the offender's crime affected them or their community. The group then discusses the offense and its repercussions, and agrees on appropriate restitution.

Volunteers claim the program reduces recidivism and leaves their communities better. For volunteers such as Stewart, it is a way to avoid complacency. "This gives the opportunity for people affected to come and talk about it," he said.

This month, the $140,000-per-year program worked its 400th case since its September 1997 inception. Offenders have logged more than 900 cumulative community service hours. That's earned the attention of Minneapolis police, who want to incorporate the program into a Nuisance Night Court pilot for Downtown, focused on punishing low-level offenders the same day they offend, perhaps using less city time and money.

Restorative Justice at work: The community conference At a mid-July conference in Downtown's Elliot Park neighborhood, Stewart, another facilitator, five residents, and an offender and his supporter gathered to address the crimes and work out a restoration plan.

The offenses: drinking in public and open container, both low-level misdemeanors.

The offender (who requested anonymity) came into the room with a large, stuffed backpack, a baseball cap and headphones around his neck. After the facilitators read introductions and the offender admitted to the charges, he was given the opportunity to address the group.

The offender, 52 years old and homeless, said he used to have a home in South Minneapolis and a farm out of town but has been homeless for a long time.

He discussed his offense apologetically, but also gave context to his crime. "I was drinking in public and got caught. I had no other place to go -- I'm homeless," he said.

His shelter closed a few months ago, but he has since found a new one. He is currently waiting for determination of his Social Security benefits since he's been ruled disabled.

Residents then took turns telling the offender how his actions affect their community and lives. One volunteer, Anne Supplee, said she works with homeless teens, and when they see other homeless drinking on the street, it crushes any hope for improving their situation. "I don't want our youth to see that," she said.

Supplee said when teens see such behavior, they ask: "I'm 17 years old and homeless -- is that where I'm going to end up?"

The group, including the offender, agreed to a restorative program and signed contracts.

The offender agreed to 16 hours of community service, half at the Greater Lake Community Food Bank and half working with homeless youth; eight hours of personal development, half job-focused and half focused on finding permanent housing, not in a shelter, plus a written apology to the neighborhood organizations affected by his offense.

He has two months to complete the agreement; then his record will be wiped clean and no fine levied.

The offender said after the conference that he would have rather just paid the fine and moved on, but he doesn't have any money.

However, he said he does want to make up for his crimes and he's concerned about how offenses like his affect children. "Children are affected by adults -- they copy them, and adults aren't always right," he said.

Stewart said in the conference that 10 percent of offenders in the program don't comply with their program and another 10 percent reoffend.

That claim compares favorably, if inexactly, to recent Hennepin County statistics. A county report tracked prisoners put on probation in 1996 for three years and found that 38 percent of misdemeanor and felony offenders committed new crimes. (The study included some more serious crimes not handled by Restorative Justice, such as violent crime and DWIs.)

Gerard said she's seen offenders actually build relationships -- sometimes garnering job offers -- from the people for whom they pay restitution.

Downtown livability crimes

Stewart, who works Downtown, has been a conference facilitator for about two years and said it's helped his feelings about his community.

"Sometimes people think they're victims because they got caught," he said. "(Through the program), they realize that what they do in neighborhoods affects people."

Loring Park resident Tricia Simo Kush said she is frustrated and embarrassed by small crimes occurring in her neighborhood, such as public drunkenness and urination, and drug dealing. "It frustrates me to no end," she said.

Simo Kush, a program volunteer for three years, said such crimes complicate her life when visitors come to town because they're sometimes scared or disgusted by the small, yet visible crimes Downtown. She said it bothers her because she views her neighborhood as a reflection of her life choices.

While Simo Kush said some participating offenders are homeless and incapable of paying a fine, its not the majority of cases. "You've got people from all walks of life," she said. Kush added that many offenders in the program are young males caught breaking the law after bar close. Kush stated, "I feel like I'm walking into a bachelor party."

Simo Kush said it was frustration that made her want to get involved. "I wanted to be part of the solution," she said.

Simo Kush said, through being involved in the conferences, she knows not every offender is truly moved by the process, but it's comforting to see offenders taking more responsibility. "It knocks my socks off every time," she said.

Dee Cotten, a Downtown resident, has been involved with almost every part of the program in her five years as a volunteer. She said by confronting offenders, she's developed a new sense of courage to stand up for her neighborhood.

Cotten said public drinking has been a problem in her neighborhood. Now, she said when she sees vagrants drinking on the steps of her building, she confronts them and tells them they're breaking the law and harming her quality of life. She tells them she'll call the police, and they quickly leave.

Gerard said drinking in public, disorderly conduct and drugs are the program's most common offenses. Mike Rollin, program community organizer, said low-level crimes for their purposes, means misdemeanor cases, including prostitution and occasionally felony drug cases committed by offenders with a nonviolent history.

According to 2002 arrest statistics put together by Crime Prevention Specialist Luther Krueger, Downtown's 1st Precinct leads all city precincts in the number of arrests for liquor offenses and disorderly conduct offenses. In 2002, Downtown racked up 1,466 liquor-related arrests out of 4,345 citywide and had 1,587 disorderly conduct arrests out of 3,953.

Rollin said arrest statistics could be misleading because many people issued a citation blow it off and never show up in court.

Gerard said two-thirds of offenders don't even respond to the citations. She said offenders' non-response spurred the program in the first place, to convey some consequences.

She said the lack of consequences spurred four downtown neighborhoods to form the project in the mid-'90s. In 1995 and 1996, roundtable discussions were conducted with the police chief, director of corrections, the city attorney and city councilmembers, too, but neighborhoods wanted to see action.

She said funding for the nonprofit program is supplied by myriad government, public and private institutions.

Gerard said they were frustrated by street crime and viewed 911 calls and police pick-ups as simply a revolving door. "It didn't keep the very same person from showing up on the corner the very same day," she said.

Rollin said that's a large reason the program was founded: to put faces to the offense and the neighborhood it's occurring in, hopefully making offenders think twice before repeating criminal behavior.

"I've had a number of conferences where people say they look at things differently," said Simo Kush encouragingly.

She said she also has a lot of respect for those who chose to come through the program, as it would be much easier to pay a fine.

"It's not a fine; it means something to the neighborhood," Gerard said.

Still, Rollin said Restorative Justice can only access offenders who show up in court, and that's why they don't process as many cases as they could. "We've consistently been operating below our capacity," he said.

Rollin estimates the program currently processes 10 cases a month, when it has enough volunteers to handle 24.

He acknowledged that Restorative Justice is much more time-consuming than the traditional system, but he said volunteers and program staff are glad to give the time because they see the return.

Despite boosters such as Stewart, Cotton, Simo Kush and Rollins, Gerard said her main focus is securing funding for their current programming, but they don't shut out the possibility expanding somewhere down the line.