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One Community's Restorative Alternative

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opednews.com Headlined to H2 12/9/10

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Restorative justice community action

Restorative Justice Community Action (RJCA) is an alternative to the court system addressing the types of crimes which stain the character of communities as good places to live and work. Beginning with a core of 5 inner city Minneapolis neighborhoods, the parent program, Central City Neighborhoods Partnership (CCNP) Restorative Justice Program, began in 1997 to address these cases in face-to-face meetings with concerned members of the community. Instead of paying a fine or other penalty, offenders would take responsibility for their behavior and see the impact of their behavior on the real victims, community members. The tangible and positive results in crime reduction and community livability in these core neighborhoods caused other neighborhoods and the court system to seek further expansion of the program. Continuing success prompted the incorporation of Restorative Justice Community Action (RJCA) in 2005. Currently, RJCA serves the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County through community conferencing and reparative panels with over 2,500 incidents directly addressed by community members.

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The local court system had limited resources to address low-level offense like public intoxication, soliciting prostitution or loitering with the intent to buy or sell. Most cases were resolved with small fines or dismissals. Weak consequences gave officers little incentive to arrest or cite offenders. And whether offenders received a payable ticket or had to appear in court, they often had no idea how they were harming the community. Meanwhile, neighborhood efforts to combat crime through block patrols, block clubs, and 911 campaigns seemed futile as apprehended persons were soon back on the streets, engaged in the same activities.

In 1995 and 1996, CCNP held a series of roundtables with local policymakers to discuss their findings and their concerns. As an outgrowth of these discussions, one of the neighborhood associations took the lead to spearhead several efforts in favor of system change: expanding the availability of Sentence to Service as a sanction judges could impose in court; opening the first neighborhood probation office in HennepinCounty; and launching the CCNP Restorative Justice Program.

Although all three efforts were successful, it was RJCA that established a permanent, effective means of community collaboration with the criminal justice system for the purpose of handling individual nuisance crimes at the neighborhood level in a positive, pro-active way.

Offenders who commit livability crimes are offered the option to participate in RJCA programs as an alternative to court, a fine or some other sanction at the time of citation, other pre-court diversion, or court. Offenders meet with community members in a facilitated discussion to tell the story of their behavior, hear the impact on the community and come to a reparative agreement by consensus. An offender who successfully completes the agreement with no re-offense within a year will get their case dismissed. Gross misdemeanor and low level felony offenders are often participating as part of the terms of sentencing or probation.

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Since the first case, the program has addressed over 2,500 incidents at the community level, involving more than 1000 community members in the justice process. The program has held all participating offenders accountable to the community for their actions, giving a voice to people victimized by persistent low-level crime, and producing thousands of hours of service for the neighborhoods harmed. About 85% of all participating offenders follow through with their agreements for restitution to the community. Importantly, the program has re-engaged offenders with the community in positive ways, supporting them as productive members of society and minimizing their contact with the criminal justice system. Moreover, as documented in an independent program evaluation in 1999, the program has fostered community-building by creating and strengthening community members' relationships, in effect building capacity for the collective management of behavior and community-based crime prevention. A 2010 study showed that only 19% of offenders participating had no new conviction compared to 32% in the traditional court system within a three year period.

The program has earned a reputation for being committed to quality, and for consistently achieving outstanding results. Ongoing evaluation activities include post-conference facilitator peer reviews, post-conference staff debriefings, and satisfaction surveys for all offenders, victims, community members, and supporters. According to the surveys, 98% of community participants, 99% of offenders, and 99% of offender supporters are satisfied with the outcomes of community conferences. A total of 95% report that they feel more connected to the community as a result of their participation. Asked if they felt the facilitator did a proper job, 99% of respondents say yes, and nearly 100% would recommend conferencing to others.

Viewed as a model program for engaging ordinary citizens in the justice process and the civic life of their community, the program has attracted local, national, and international attention. This year, RJCA was selected by the AshCenter for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, HarvardUniversity, as one of 173 government programs for the AshCenter's newly-created Bright Ideas program. In its inaugural year, Bright Ideas is designed to recognize and share creative government initiatives around the country with interested public sector, nonprofit, and academic communities. RJCA is frequently consulted by other cities and jurisdictions interested in this community-directed model of justice.

In 2010, RJCA began new expansions, offering a restorative justice option to all neighborhoods in Minneapolis by taking eligible offenses city-wide as well as to

Hennepin County Drug Court and County Attorney Juvenile Division. Restorative Justice Community Action has grown significantly and continues to expand to offer restorative options to more individuals and communities.

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One Community's Restorative Alternative