Breaking the cycle with restorative justice

Friday, April 28, 2006

EAST PRAIRIE, Mo. -- It's not enough to simply punish criminals, some experts say. People must understand the impact their crimes have on the community, their victims and even themselves.

For youth in Mississippi County, they are learning just that.

At the Susanna Wesley Family Learning Center in East Prairie, Mo., youths who committed crimes are required to go through a program aimed at getting at the reason behind their crimes.

The program, Respect Yourself and Others, teaches accountability for their actions while building self esteem and social skills to prevent recidivism, or repeat offenses. It utilizes restorative justice, a process in which criminal offenders are held accountable for their crimes, develop empathy for the victim and make amends.

Since the program in Mississippi County began in 2001, recidivism rates among youths in the county have dropped from 20 percent to 6 percent, according to Jeanice Griffin, youth coordinator for the center.

"When they understand the harm, they are much less likely to do it again," said Nina Balsam, director of the Restorative Justice Coalition, which seeks to expand the awareness of restorative justice and promote such programs in Missouri.

The youths at the learning center undergo a 14-session program that helps them develop better decision-making skills, social skills and self esteem, which Griffin said was the hardest part of the program.

"These kids can't understand they're worth something," she said.

Through the session, Griffin said workers at the center try to get at the reason behind why they committed their crime, which Balsam considered crucial.

"Unless you get at that, they're going to re-offend," Balsam said.

Most of the children at the learning center face a home situation either lacking parental guidance or involving domestic violence that likely propelled them to act out or break the law, Griffin said. The program in East Prairie seeks to change the youths' reaction to such a home life or peer pressure.

"Regardless of what's happening around you, you have to make the right decision," Griffin said. "You have to deal with the situations as they are and what's the best decision to make."

Griffin said most youths will not be able to change their home life, but they can change how they act. After most of the youth wake themselves up and go to school, they walk to the program's facility, sign in, and have a snack.

If they fail to sign in, they do not receive credit for the hours they worked, Griffin said.

"The big word is accountability. You're accountable for what you do," she said.

The center is fully in charge of youths the court requires complete community service. They committed a wide range of offenses, including shoplifting, property damage, burglary and sexual assault.

"We talk about life," Griffin said. "The reason you're in here is you made a wrong choice."

But the focus is not just on the offenders. With restorative justice, the victim also has a voice.

Some programs of restorative justice across the country have included the victims and offenders coming together and talking with one another, Balsam said. Other programs have had community members meeting with the offender and deciding how the offender should repay the community.

"This is a way of breaking the cycle" of repeat offenses, Balsam said.

At the learning center, a letter stating what the offender has accomplished is sent to the victims when the youths are close to completing their community service hours, Griffin said. The letter states the number of hours of community service completed and outlines the 14-session program they completed.

In response, the victim fills out a survey stating how satisfied they were with the program, and most of the feedback has been satisfactory, Griffin said.

When the youths come to the center after school, they face an array of tasks on any given day. As restorative justice involves the offender taking action to help their community, many tasks revolve around just that.

Some days the youths, between 9 and 16 years old, pick up trash along the side of the road. Other days they help fold clothes or organize toys that were donated to the center, Griffin said.

The center receives 90 to 110 youths a year who are sentenced to between 40 and 420 hours of community service. Most are in the program for about three and a half months. In the last four years, the youths have performed a total of 19,000 hours of community service.

Even though there is a lower recidivism rate, Griffin said the majority of youths who come back into the program were likely in the wrong place at the wrong time. One girl, who was a repeat offender, rode in a car that had liquor in the trunk, which she did not know about, violating her probation.

Again, it comes back to making the right decisions, including who to take rides from, Griffin said.

"We want them to complete this and not be in this particular program again," she said. "In a few months, we give them a vision of life."

335-6611 extension 127

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