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Feature

The scales of justice.

Student offenders who participate in the restorative justice program have an opportunity to make peace with the community and get the offense removed from their record.

Making it right: Restorative justice a learning experience for U students in tro

Restorative justice a learning experience for U students in trouble

By Gayla Marty and Pauline Oo

Published on December 15, 2004

When Tracy* got a ticket for underage drinking, she thought the only thing she had done was hurt herself.

But when she walked into a room and sat in a circle with four people who work at the U or live nearby, she found out she was wrong.

"Oh my gosh, I had no idea," she said as each person described how underage drinking harms them and the University as a whole--from loud parties and trash in their yards to the damaged reputation of all U students.

Tracy was one of more than a 100 people cited for minor consumption on or near the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis this fall. She was also one of those who chose to go through a process called restorative justice in order to have the citation removed from her permanent legal record and to avoid the fine. Her 45-minute conference focused on the impact of what she'd done and ways to restore the community.

"It seemed to be an eye-opener to her that one person can do such harm or just contribute to ongoing challenges in a community," says Chris Frazier, a U employee and a volunteer at Tracy's conference.

Statistics show that offenders who participate in restorative justice are less likely to offend again than those who pay fines or serve time.

On July 1, the University of Minnesota signed on to participate in the Central City Neighborhoods Partnership (CCNP) Restorative Justice Program, founded to make Minneapolis offenders accountable for lesser offenses--often called livability crimes. During the months of October and November, 37 of the 95 people (or about 40 percent) cited for minor consumption on the East Bank and in adjacent neighborhoods opted for the program. When they had received their tickets, they also received an insert about the alternative.

"Getting a citation used to be mostly a hassle," says U police Lieutenant Troy Buhta. "Now there's an opportunity to learn."

If you work or attend classes at the University, or work or live in the Marcy-Holmes or Southeast Como neighborhood, you are invited to be part of the community pool of volunteers who participate in conferences with student offenders. U employees provide an important perspective on the true harm of livability crimes, an important complement to the views of area residents. When you volunteer, you will receive a packet of information and attend a half-hour orientation. Then you can attend a single conference or make an ongoing commitment. Conferences typically include more than one offender and last two hours, but may be longer. To volunteer, contact Emily Buehler at the CCNP Restorative Justice Program, 612-341-1657.

Buhta took time to attend a restorative justice conference between several offenders and the community to see for himself what happened after he handed out a ticket.

"The students got to give their side of the story--that they're just college students trying to have a good time, acting foolishly," Buhta says. "The neighborhoods got a chance to put a face on the people that cause such disruption to the neighborhood on party nights. People were able to talk civilly, back and forth. It was great, in the end, because the students saw how drinking affects the neighborhoods and the reputation of University students and the U, over all. They really seemed to understand."

Creating a "win" situation for everybody

CCNP's Restorative Justice Program began in 1997 as a way to make offenders in Minneapolis accountable for lesser offenses--often called livability crimes. When offenders get ticketed for things like public drinking or urination, aggressive solicitation (panhandling), or damage to property (including graffiti), they can avoid the traditional penalty and legal record by choosing the restorative justice route provided by CCNP.

Restorative justice can create a "win" situation for everybody. The caseload in the court system is lightened. People who live and work in the community get a chance to be heard. The community benefits from service contributed by the offender. Offenders get their record cleared and learn the impact of their crime. Statistics show that offenders who participate in restorative justice are less likely to offend again than those who pay fines or serve time.

Through the CCNP process, offenders who are willing to admit to the charges then attend a meeting, or conference, with people who live in the community where the offense occurred. The person must propose a way to make restitution or contribute to that specific community. Options often include writing a letter of apology and completing community service, which ranges from working at a food shelf to donating tools or giving free guitar lessons to neighborhood kids. Sometimes a "self-improvement" component, like taking a chemical-use assessment, is appropriate. The community must accept the proposal and the offender must carry out the agreement in order to successfully complete the program.

For the University, becoming a participant in the restorative justice program meets educational goals and also helps to promote good community relations.

"Rather than just writing out a check for fifty dollars and getting in trouble again, [student offenders] get the chance to reflect on their activity and how it impacts people around them, and to repair some of the damage that they've done," says Amelious Whyte in the Office of Student Affairs.

"For the community, it creates closure," Whyte adds, "and that helps it have a better relationship with the University."

Tracy proposed that she serve 16 hours of community service, and the community representatives that met with her agreed. The CCNP will coordinate and monitor Tracy's service requirement.

The process was well-run and professional, according to Chris Frazier. She hopes other faculty, staff, and students volunteer to represent the U in CCNP conferences.


*Tracy is not her real name.

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