The young woman—a girl, really—sat with her hands twisting in her lap, her knees bouncing nervously. As she spoke, her lips pressed into a pout. “It was Lucy’s idea. It WAS.”
All eyes turned to Lucy. But it was not her turn to speak. Ginger held the talking stick, and it was up to her to tell exactly what had happened.
“What were you thinking at the time?” one of the facilitators prompted gently.
“I dunno,” Ginger whined. “We were—we were just hanging out. We were bored, I guess. We didn’t have anything to do.”
I thought back to my own teenage years. I remembered that feeling so well.
Twelve of us had come together on a winter day to hear an account of a crime, a burglary by two teenagers, and to discuss how best to heal the harm that had been done. The offense had occurred in a quiet neighborhood. The girls involved were known and liked by the neighbor whose house they had broken into. At the time she’d been traveling in Africa. The girls had gone into her house through a back door and taken jewelry, a laptop, and some bras. Before they could leave, they’d been surprised by a neighbor who was taking in the mail.
The crime had badly split the neighborhood residents. Now this circle of people—the girls, their mothers, the owner of the house, the woman who’d caught them in the act, some community members, and two facilitators—were trying to figure out how things might be set right. The girls had chosen this course of action, known as restorative justice, with the hope that it would allow them to make amends and move forward without criminal charges on their records. But as Ginger’s demeanor clearly showed, it was not going to be easy.
I should stop here and tell you that this was not a real restorative justice circle. Ten of us were being trained to serve as facilitators in these kinds of conflict resolution interventions. The other two were well-seasoned facilitators. We had each been assigned a role and asked to play it sincerely. And we were, following the lead of the two women in the starring roles of the teenagers. Their performances were Academy Award material. I glanced back at “Lucy,” who was nervously turning an orange in her hands.
Everything I’ve learned about helping other people points to the same lessons: Never jump to conclusions. Avoid making snap judgments. As much as possible, act from your heart. This reads like a job description for restorative justice work, in which passions often run hot and surprises are to be expected. RJ, as it’s known, allows the victims of crimes to speak directly to the offenders, telling them what the crime has cost them, and not just in monetary terms.
I’d learned about restorative justice from a magazine article with the enticing headline “Can Forgiveness Play a Role In Criminal Justice?” It described the outcome of a murder case in Florida in which the parents of the young woman killed were able to speak directly to the murderer—who had been her boyfriend—and make suggestions about the sentence he should receive. The process had proved to be much more comforting to them than normal court proceedings would have been.
The RJ model is based on the kinds of circles or conferences used by many native tribes to deal with conflict. At the heart of the approach is the hope that the relationships damaged by the crime will be repaired and—perhaps even more importantly—that the conditions that led to the crime can be eliminated so others won’t follow the same path.
RJ cases can deal with a range of crimes from minor to serious. In each, the victims are able to speak directly to the offender about their feelings. Working with others they help develop a plan for what the offender can do to set things right. Everyone in the circle signs this “repair agreement” and agrees to support the person in carrying it out. If the offender fulfills the agreement promptly, the criminal justice system reduces the sentence considerably, if not dismissing the charge entirely.
Our faux circle that day was composed of volunteers interested in becoming facilitators with an organization here in Maine called the Restorative Justice Project. We listened as those playing the owner of the burgled house and other neighbors talked about the fear and insecurity they’d felt since the break-in, the sleepless nights they’d suffered through, and—most wrenchingly—the loss of their faith that their neighborhood was a safe, friendly place where everyone watched out for each other.
As I sat quietly, adding an occasional comment (I had been given the role of a local cop), I couldn’t help feeling that I was in way over my head. This work was going to be a serious challenge. What could I say to these two girls that might help?
But this also seemed like exactly the kind of service I’d been longing to find. Restorative justice cases often involve young people whose lives have gone awry because of a few bad decisions. I couldn’t think of anything better I could do in honor of our son, who lost his life nine years ago this month—and who, given a few different circumstances, might have been sitting in one of these circles as a 14-year-old. Reid had gone through a hellion period, though he’d grown out of it. I’d had my own sketchy string of teenage years.
As I waited for my turn to speak, I realized I couldn’t know what to say to help these girls, not at an intellectual level. I’d have to hope that some sort of wisdom would rise from my heart. To my astonishment, it did.
When the talking stick was passed to me, I suggested that the girls be required to get involved in some activities that would interest them and give them something productive to do. Even as I said it, I could hear my father grumbling at my teenage self to “go find something productive to do.” It made me cringe a little.
But it worked.
Ginger suddenly piped up that she had always wanted to volunteer to work with horses at a nearby stable. Lucy said she was interested in learning to garden. And so the group included those two requirements in the girls’ repair agreement, along with shoveling snow for the woman they’d stolen from and helping plan a block party to rebuild the community’s sense of camaraderie. The girls would also be required to meet weekly with a restorative justice mentor, who would keep them on track.
The circle broke up. We stepped out of our roles, laughing with incredulity at how believable it had been, and how powerfully the experience had touched our emotions. We talked about the strengths and weaknesses of the repair agreement we’d crafted. And we went home to our normal lives, knowing that perhaps very soon we’d again be in an RJ circle. But the next time the circumstances and people central to the case—those who’d harmed and those who’d been harmed—would be for real.
Here’s a link to the New York Times Magazine article that first stoked my interest in restorative justice: