May 01, 2018
People over Punishment: Restorative Justice in Marin County
May 01, 2018
By Anna Pletcher
One night in Elmira, Ontario, in 1974, two teenagers went on a drunken rampage. They slashed tires, smashed windows, and even overturned a boat. All told, they vandalized 22 homes, costing thousands in damages.
The youths were arrested and questioned by law enforcement, but they did not go to jail. Instead, a probation officer suggested a different approach: in addition to paying fines and restitution, the young men should face the victims of their crimes and own up to their actions. The judge accepted the idea.
The teens went door-to-door, apologizing to the people whose property they had destroyed. Russ Kelly, who was 18 at the time, said "It took every ounce of courage I had to stand on their doorsteps and meet them. Seeing the anger in their eyes and the disgust on their faces, it was an emotional thing. That was harder than if we'd just pleaded guilty, spent six months in jail and then moved on. We wouldn't have learned anything."
The experience was a turning point for Kelly, who never committed another crime, overcame his drug and alcohol addictions, and obtained a college degree. It was also a turning point in the history of crime and punishment -- the Elmira incident marked the beginning of the modern restorative justice movement.
In contrast to the traditional criminal justice system, which is based on punishment, restorative justice focuses on people. This approach elevates the voices of crime victims and community members and holds offenders accountable directly to the people they have harmed. The goal is to heal the relationships among the offender, the victim, and the community.
Here in Marin, we are fortunate to have several restorative options, including a reconciliation program operated by the Probation Office and specialized courts. Perhaps one of the most compelling restorative justice successes in Marin is with our young people.
Marin Youth Court
Established in 2004 and operated by the YMCA, Youth Court is a peer-to-peer program for children ages 11 to 17 who have committed low-level criminal violations. Youth court has served over 1,000 young people since its inception.
I have served for several years as a volunteer judge for Youth Court and am impressed by it every time I participate. This is how it works: First, the offender, known as the “respondent,” must accept responsibility for their actions and be willing to make amends for the harm they have caused. Then law enforcement, school administrators, or the Probation Office may refer the juvenile to Youth Court.
The court session takes place in a regular courtroom at the Marin County Civic Center. A volunteer “facilitator” or judge, often a local attorney, sits at the judge’s bench, ensuring that the rules are followed. Parents and the public are allowed to sit in the gallery and observe.
The jury typically consists of between ten and twenty young people. Teens also play the roles of bailiff and courtroom advocates. The advocates are similar to defense attorneys and prosecutors, but in this context, they are not adversarial. Their job is to highlight facts for the jury to consider when arriving at a restorative plan.
The respondent sits in the witness stand and explains to the jury how and why the criminal violation happened. Then the questioning begins. Each juror must ask at least two questions. The questions range from simple factual clarifications to challenging probes into complex family dynamics. They often touch on school performance and friendships, relationships with parents, interactions with law enforcement, and the underlying causes of drug use. They require respondents to think about what steps they will take to make better decisions in the future. Ultimately, they demand self-reflection and accountability to the community -- two critical components of restorative justice that are absent in the traditional, punitive justice system.
When the questions end, each advocate addresses the jury with a recommendation for a restorative plan. The restorative plan is always a combination of community service hours and Youth Court jury duty. The jury then deliberates and presents their final restorative plan. The respondent accepts the decision and the court adjourns.
The courtroom session is not, however, the end of the process. The respondent must still complete the 12-hour YMCA Alcohol and Drug Safety Skills Training. Six of those hours must be with their parents.
Youth Court has an eight percent recidivism rate, compared to 20 percent in the traditional system. Importantly, Youth Court participants do not receive a criminal record. Like Kelly from Elmira, they are able to learn from their poor choices and successfully re-engage in the community.
Our Challenge: Racial Disparities
Youth Court is a model restorative program. It is not, however, available equally to all teens in Marin. “The Color of Youth Court,” a documentary produced by Tamalpais High School students in 2015, highlighted the racial disparity in access to the program. The film noted that African-Americans comprise 15 percent of juveniles arrested in Marin but only one percent of offenders referred to Youth Court. The remainder face the traditional system.
One reason for this disparity is that individual law enforcement jurisdictions have significant discretion over whether to refer a juvenile to Youth Court. The Marin County Sheriff, which has jurisdiction over the majority of African-American communities in Marin, generally does not refer to Youth Court.
Implicit bias may also contribute to the racial gap. According to the 2018 “Race Counts” report by the Advancement Project, Marin ranks number one in racial disparities among all 58 counties in California. Inequality in the criminal justice system was one of the primary drivers of our top ranking.
Marin should continue to invest in and improve upon its existing restorative justice programs. Restorative justice builds stronger and safer communities. It saves taxpayer money by focusing on prevention and rehabilitation and drastically reduces recidivism. By bringing stakeholders together to identify opportunities to expand access to restorative programs and to reduce racial bias, we can ensure that all communities in Marin reap the benefits of accountability, growth, and healing.
Anna Pletcher has a decade of experience as a federal prosecutor, specializing in white collar crime, and is proud to have served as Assistant Chief of the U.S. Department of Justice, Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office. A graduate of Yale and Berkeley Law, Anna has also taught at Berkeley and Hastings law schools. Anna clerked for Judge Douglas P. Woodlock on United States District Court, District of Massachusetts. Prior to law school, Anna was an investment banking analyst at JP Morgan Chase. Anna is a tireless advocate for women and children, having served as Chair of the Marin Women's Commission and on the Boards of the Marin Coalition to End Human Trafficking, the Marin County Bar Association, and the Tamalpais Unified School District Wellness Advisory Board. Anna volunteers as a judge for Youth Court, a restorative justice program for youth, and she started a program to teach the Constitution to local students.