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A People-Focused Solution

Restorative justice programs may offer the best new hope for reducing violence in Oakland schools and the city overall, but their future funding is uncertain.



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One student Moore described was caught selling marijuana at school — but his problems went beyond that, Moore said. "He wouldn't come to school for days, or would go to school first period and then be outside smoking marijuana. The school would suspend him — he didn't care. He had no respect."

After participating in the CommunityWorks program, Moore said, "he's attending classes, his grades have improved, he respects his mother — his mother came in and thanked me." This story, Moore said, is typical. And the change spreads from the offenders to their friends. Those who have gone through the process "are looking to set an example," Moore added.

When he first heard of restorative justice, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Matthew Golde was skeptical. But he became an enthusiastic supporter after he attended several restorative justice conferences. "There's the kid, the parents are there," he said. "Most of the time the parents are not making excuses; I was impressed with the families. There's the victim or a surrogate. It's informal, not accusatory, a more supportive environment to start talking about what they did and why they did it. The kids have to take full responsibility. Hopefully, restorative justice can impact them better than we do in the adversarial system." With traditional approaches, he added, "our outcomes are not good."

The CommunityWorks program has been going less than a year and a half, so data on its efficacy are incomplete. But so far, said Executive Director Ruth Morgan, 25 youths have successfully completed their 6-month plans. None of the youths who completed their plans six months ago have re-offended. Another 47 youth have completed their conferences and are working on their plans. Only two have been sent back to the DA's Office for non-completion.

Despite his enthusiasm, Golde said he would be cautious about referring youth to restorative justice if they have committed serious crimes. "If it's a serious problem posing a danger to the community, there's something to be said for incapacitation," he said.

But Denise Curtis, who heads the restorative justice program for CommunityWorks, said her program has seen the process work just as well for serious crimes like assault. CommunityWorks estimates that 74 percent of the youth they have worked with have committed felonies.

Deputy District Attorney Allison Danzig, who refers young offenders to CommunityWorks, said she doesn't have set criteria. "It's a judgment call based on the severity of the case, what the victim wants, the age, the evidence." Restorative justice is intended for youth who acknowledge some level of guilt, not those who want a trial to prove their innocence.

Golde and the CommunityWorks staff both said a kid's chances of doing well are very much influenced by family and community factors. And some youth with serious or long-standing problems need more help. Jonathan Bradley of CommunityWorks described one participant who's "dealing with some issues not a lot of fifteen-year-olds have to deal with," including a drinking problem and estrangement from his family. After his conference he was arrested for shoplifting.

Since then, though, Bradley said, the young man has stayed out of trouble. He is volunteering at a community agency and working on finding a job. "I'm sure he'll finish his plan," Bradley said, but CommunityWorks does not have the resources to provide long-term "wraparound" support. "The most we can do is connect him with other resources."

Golde said, however, that most kids who go through the program can succeed. "With the right intervention," he said, the vast majority of kids "would be fine."

During the six months the youth work on their plans, the ongoing support of CommunityWorks staff is critical. For example, another student whose conference Officer Moore attended, "stole a purse and a laptop from a teacher," Moore said. At a restorative justice conference, "they made a contract: The young man agreed to pay the teacher back for the cost of what he took. They made a payment plan: The student got a part-time job on weekends and started to pay her back. The program shows children how to make a résumé, get a job, pay bills. It gives children an example of responsibility."

The conference itself also has an impact, Curtis said. Young offenders "get to meet with the person they've harmed. That can be powerful for them. [Hearing from the victim] really brings home that it's not just a thing, it's a human being who's been impacted in a really bad way by my actions. Then to be able to unload and say, 'I am sorry' — it's feeling that human connection that helps people want to do the right thing."

By bringing together victims, families, and other support people, the process "gives the community a model for dealing with crime in a way that they are empowered and given a voice," she added. "It's an opportunity for communities to rebuild and wrap their arms around their kids."

Tony Smith, the outgoing superintendent of Oakland public schools, is a strong proponent of restorative justice, and was a primary driver for implementing the program in about a dozen schools and establishing plans to expand it to twenty campuses this fall. And even though Smith is leaving the district on June 30 for family reasons, Oakland school officials say they are committed to keeping the program going — if they can secure long-term funding.

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