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Legally Speaking


Issue: December, 2008
Author: Ben Brettell & Jeremy Besbris

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A Balanced and Restorative Approach to Juvenile Justice

On a brisk June morning, Officer Norris stepped outside of his home to find an obscene and threatening poster had been rolled up and shoved underneath his patrol cruiser’s emergency lights. Like many before him, Officer Norris felt violated and victimized. His personal life had been targeted and he feared for the safety of his family.

Confident in the system, Norris believed that the people responsible for the threats against him would be apprehended and punished. By day’s end, Norris’ colleagues identified two teenage suspects, neither of whom had any prior involvement in the criminal justice system, and who, when questioned, admitted they were angry at the officer for how he had treated one of their friends.

Retributive vs. Restorative Justice
The retributive justice model has many strengths, but it does not always adequately meet the needs of the victims, offenders and a community in cases of juvenile crime. Under a retributive justice model, the above-described juveniles, if successfully prosecuted, would have faced sanctions that might include juvenile detention, probation, community service, or fines. The victim would have the limited role of presenting a victim impact statement to the Court and providing input to the prosecutor.

In contrast, the Balanced and Restorative Justice (BARJ) Model emphasizes community safety, victims’ needs and desires, offender accountability, and expanding the offender’s ability to be a productive, law-abiding member of his or her community. At the core of the BARJ model is the guiding principle that “human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.” Through the BARJ lens, crime is viewed as a broken relationship, or wound, between two or more people, rather than simply as a violation against the state. This allows the justice system to focus on the actual harm done to the victim and/or community. As a result, new options of how to meet the needs of both victims and offenders are created.

In 2003, with support and funding by county commissioners, Teton County embraced a balanced and restorative approach to juvenile justice. Since that time, several programs have been implemented in Teton County, including a Juvenile Diversion program for first-time juvenile offenders, Youth Impact Circles for minor drug and alcohol related offenses, and Restorative Group Conferencing.

BARJ in Action
The juveniles who vandalized Officer Norris’ car were referred to Teton County’s BARJ program. The teens were willing to admit their involvement in the incident, and the parents wanted their kids to be held accountable. The BARJ coordinator saw this as an opportunity to rectify the harm done to the victim by ensuring that the juveniles would be directly responsible for repairing the harm they had caused. Upon consultation with the victim, the coordinator planned a restorative group conference to allow the victim and offenders to meet face-to-face with a trained mediator to develop a meaningful outcome. Officer Norris was initially skeptical that a conference could deal with this offense as effectively as the traditional justice system, but looked forward to having his voice heard in the process.

Prior to the restorative group conference, the mediator met with and prepared Officer Norris, the offenders, and their parents. At the conference, the victim articulated how he had felt directly targeted and threatened. The parents responded with disbelief toward their children’s actions. They repeatedly conveyed their dismay and distress over the act of vandalism perpetrated by their kids. When it came time for the offenders to speak, they were visibly nervous but able to genuinely apologize. They echoed their parents’ feelings of shame and explained they had not thought about how their actions would affect so many people and to such a great extent. With all voices heard, an outcome was reached by the offenders and the victim together. The adolescents agreed to do meaningful community work service, wrote letters of apology to the officer and the police department, and participated in ride-alongs with local officers. This conference proved to be a truly powerful and transformative experience.

As this case illustrates, offering the offender the opportunity to make amends to the victim and the community allows for a truly restorative result, one which benefits all parties. Offenders, having been active agents in repairing the harm, typically have a better understanding of how their actions affect others. To this end, offenders not only experience shame, but empathy as well. The victims’ needs are also more directly addressed, thus helping to repair the psychosocial effects of the crime. Finally, the community stands to benefit from reduced rates of recidivism and the decreased costs of prosecution and corrections.

Other BARJ “Best Practices”
The example of conferencing described above is simply one component of a BARJ approach to handling a juvenile case. The Juvenile Diversion Program targets first-time juvenile offenders based on the proven premise that early intervention is an effective way to break the cycle of delinquency. The Diversion Program provides first-time juvenile offenders who have committed misdemeanor crimes and are willing to take responsibility for their actions with a more comprehensive alternative to the traditional criminal justice system. Juveniles deemed eligible for the program by the local prosecutor are assessed to determine their strengths and areas of need. A contract is then developed that identifies the specific services necessary to mitigate the risk of reoffending. An important element of the Teton County Diversion Program requires the juvenile and his or her parents to appear in court for formal dismissal of the criminal case and admission into the program. This appearance ensures the juvenile treats the offending conduct as a serious matter worthy of the court’s attention and encourages the juvenile’s earnest participation. Upon completion of diversion, the case against the juvenile is closed and there is no record of conviction. If the juvenile does not complete the contract successfully, the original charge is re-filed in court.
Youth Impact Circles bring juveniles who have committed alcohol-related offenses together with community members who have been impacted by underage drinking in some capacity to engage in an open dialogue about teenage drinking. Led by a trained facilitator, with the only requirement being that participants remain respectful of one another, a tremendous opportunity is created for honest discussion. By encouraging circle participants to speak and interact freely, circles quickly move beyond the usual, “teenage drinking is bad” discussions to thoughtful realizations about the greater impact of underage drinking. Surveys of both speakers and circle participants strongly suggest everyone involved leaves with a heightened awareness of how underage alcohol abuse impacts juveniles and the community as a whole.

BARJ – It Does A Community Good
A successful BARJ program can expand the reach of the juvenile justice system without placing extra burden on public defenders, prosecuting attorneys and the courts. Teton County Circuit Court Judge Timothy C. Day views BARJ practices as a proactive tool for the juvenile justice system. He believes BARJ to be a more productive model for offenders and provides additional resources for a rural county, without “bogging down the District Court with cases that could be dealt with effectively through other avenues.” It is still undetermined if competency development and early intervention programs will save money for Teton County, but the benefits of a BARJ approach to justice, when strategically implemented, should yield reduced rates of recidivism and a more tight-knit community. While deterrents for anti-social behavior are important, the moral internalization of wrong-doing, combined with competency development, gives juveniles a better chance to lead productive, law-abiding adult lives.

Ben Brettell is a Circuit Court liaison and the BARJ Coordinator at Teton Youth & Family Services in Jackson, Wyoming. Jeremy Besbris is the Diversion Program Coordinator for Teton Youth & Family Services in Jackson, Wyoming.

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