Restorative justice is an often misunderstood term. Fundamentally, it is a philosophy and a movement based on a set of principles that aim to mend broken relationships. When applied to implementing justice, these principles call for bringing together all the parties impacted by harm, including the person who caused the harm. Restorative justice works to repair the harm, restore relationships and address the needs of the parties and their community, allowing the person who caused the harm to be reintegrated back into their community as a whole and healed individual.

Accountability in Restorative Justice

Many people think restorative justice is a vehicle for people to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. In fact, it is exactly the opposite. The common theme among varieties of restorative justice is accountability, with the focus on determining the underlying cause of the harmful conduct in order to fully address it. Getting to the root cause of behavior requires hard work and the process can sometimes be a lengthy one. Some methods involve peer counseling while others require a skilled practitioner, or both.

Marin County’s Adult Restorative Justice Program

The Marin County District Attorney's Office has utilized adult restorative justice practices in collaboration with our justice partners for years. If an individual is willing to accept responsibility for their actions and the victim agrees, we refer their case to the Probation Department's restorative justice program. This agreement takes courage as the offender must be willing to accept responsibility and be held accountable and the victim must be willing to participate in a dialogue regarding how they have been impacted.

Marin’s program coordinator is Cindy Ayala, an experienced practitioner who works directly with offenders to determine the root causes of their behavior. That process can take weeks or longer, depending on the participants. Cindy then meets with the victims to discuss the harm caused to them as well as their needs and concerns. This process may lead to a face-to-face meeting if the parties are willing and ready. Victims may choose to have a support person present during the meeting. During the meeting the two parties discuss what happened and how to repair the harm and move forward. This navigation requires patience and expertise on Cindy's part as often there are barriers on both sides.

The process creates an opportunity for the person responsible to be accountable, learn from their actions and hear the victim's perspective. For their part, victims are heard, have a say in how the harm will be repaired and can heal from the process. The rate of recidivism is low for those who successfully complete the process, with a nearly perfect satisfaction rate among victims. One recent victim commented that, “You have no idea how good it feels to talk about this..., even now [during the pandemic]. Thank you....[N]ow I can let it go and take care of what I now need. I can move on.” The Department recently added a new staff member to this valuable program and my Office is looking forward to expanding the nature of the cases we refer to it, including in select post-plea cases. As you can infer from the recent victim's comment, the program continues to operate remotely during the pandemic, which has the added benefit of accommodating victims who live far away. If you want to learn more about the program, you can contact Cindy Ayala here.

Youth Restorative Justice Programs and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

By implementing restorative justice in the classroom, children can learn skills of collaboration, effective communication and accountability. By not punishing and expelling them, we interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline for those who are at risk. Punishment or expulsion can be emotionally challenging, confusing and even damaging, especially if it happens repeatedly. It can begin a downward emotional spiral, where a child no longer feels welcome at school, in turn starting them on a path of looking elsewhere to feel a sense of connection and belonging. If the child is also struggling at home, punishment compounds his or her feelings of internal failure. These experiences are foundational to the core of a child’s self-esteem and capacity to be resilient in the face of adversity.

Giving teachers and their students the skills to be able to communicate effectively, address and resolve conflicts, and be held accountable in healthy ways teaches our children one of the most important lessons in life: We all make mistakes and there is a path back when we do. Moreover, when teachers and students learn how to communicate with each other, how to grapple with difficult emotions and understand what accountability looks and feels like, they are more likely to use these skills outside the classroom in the rest of their lives, further building their resilience.

Some restorative justice programs have participants seated or standing in a circle. Many practitioners believe such a “restorative circle” is inspired in part by indigenous cultures around the world, the circular structure ensuring an equal voice for all. Some restorative practices also utilize a talking stick, which is passed from speaker to speaker to ensure all have an opportunity to voice their thoughts.

A Selection of Marin’s Youth Restorative Justice Programs

Many Marin County schools have restorative justice programs in their curricula, including Tamalpais High School and Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy. Additionally, the Center for Restorative Practices (Executive Director, Pastor Marcus Small) uses restorative justice practices countywide to help and support families who have difficulty getting their children to school. It provides "Behavioral Intervention, Planning and Consultation,” creating an “Individualized Educational Plan” for each participant. Restorative justice practices for youth have deep roots in Marin and in the remainder of this article, I examine a few of the other youth restorative justice programs in Marin.

Youth Transforming Justice: Since 2004, county activist Don Carney has run Marin Youth Court (MYC), addressing misdemeanor youth offenses with a restorative and trauma-informed approach. Over that time, MYC has worked with nearly 1,300 teens and their families, helping young people take accountability for their poor choices while keeping them out of the juvenile justice system. Nearly 95% of teens referred to the program complete all requirements and recidivism is a low 7%.

MYC cases involve a variety of school conduct violations and misdemeanors. Regardless of the violation, every Youth Court meeting starts with an educational-conversational component about the realities of the drug and alcohol environment teens navigate in Marin County. Peers provide information and harm reduction education is always a part of the discussion. The program’s commitment to providing youth with true agency is evident in the court hearings, all aspects of which are led by youth. MYC provides a unique opportunity for young people from across the county to gain leadership skills while supporting peers through the process of interviewing teens about their violation, support systems, drug and alcohol use, strengths, and interests in order to gain a fuller picture of why a violation occurred. Jurors then offer a restorative plan based on the teen’s individual needs and strengths to help reduce the chances of repeat violations. Participants return to serve on the jury for others as part of their restorative plan. The peer support and empathy from the jury is one of the most profound takeaways of youth court.

In July of this year, Don Carney and his team (formerly housed at the YMCA) launched an independent nonprofit called Youth Transforming Justice to realize Don’s vision of expanding services to include a robust School Suspension Alternatives program, Drug and Alcohol Safety Skills training for parents and teens as well as a youth advocacy arm, which has launched a Youth Racial Equity advocacy team and will also focus on transforming the juvenile justice system. Joining Don, who is the Executive Director, is Associate Director Julie Whyte and Restorative Justice Associate Antonio Zavala. We look forward to Youth Transforming Justice's journey. Interested in volunteering or watching a remote restorative court session? Contact Don Carney at

Consejo Restaurativo de Marin: Maite Duran, Drug Free Communities Project Coordinator for Alcohol Justice1 in San Rafael, coordinates a community restorative justice program called Consejo Restaurativo de Marin (CRM). The program currently has six bilingual and bi-cultural women who meet every Thursday to review cases referred by the Juvenile Probation Department. Due to COVID-19, they are meeting via Zoom with the youth and their parent(s). After initial intake, they hold a restorative circle where they talk about the offense. The circle results in a number of agreements that the youth will complete. Parental and youth support are key to the completion of the agreements. The designated CRM checks in with the parents to provide support and resources for challenges the youth as well as the parents may be facing with completing the agreement or with life in general. This open line of communication allows the parents to share additional challenges the young person may be facing. The entire process may take two to three months. A second circle is held at the end of the process and together they review the completion of the agreements and celebrate their success2.

Novato Unified School District: The Novato Unified School District (NUSD) serves students from preschool through high school. Last year, the district re-launched a restorative justice program as part of the Healthy Novato Initiative. The process starts with something as simple as reminding staff to be mindful when speaking to students about their behavior. For example, replacing accusatory language with supportive or helpful language. The program is run by Katie Cobb-von Husen, an experienced educator who supports prevention/intervention services at NUSD. It utilizes in-house restorative justice practitioners to focus on the cause of a child's behavior rather than punishing the child. Instead of staff "putting out behavioral fires," Ms. Cobb-von Husen says that the program helps reduce or prevent them. Once the core reason for a behavior is identified, the practitioners create a program to assist the student, and often their family. In lieu of suspensions, the programs require hard work on the students’ part. At the end of the day, youth change their behavior and are more empathetic and understanding of one another.

Terra Linda High School: Terra Linda High School French teacher Carolyn Quinby created a very popular restorative justice class, which attracts a diverse group of students. Like other school restorative justice programs, the class works with students who have issues that regularly arise at schools, such as attendance, tardiness, and vaping. When the class begins to see recurring issues, they create a flow chart of suggestions to help students navigate through these problems. They follow through with peer support, which has proven rewarding for all parties. The class often does not know from week to week what problem they will be addressing, which makes for a lively and engaged class.

Marin City Ghostbusters: Led by Juanita Edwards and Florence Williams, the Marin City Restorative Justice Group has over the years conducted a variety of trainings and programs. These have ranged from working with former judge Marilyn Mackle to hold ongoing restorative justice circles at Bayside Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy, to training staff and board members at the Marin City Community Development Corporation, to ad hoc work with the families of students fighting in school. The Group is now developing its new “Ghostbusters” team. The team will work with the Sheriff’s Department as part of its first response to address minor conflicts, especially involving youth. But the team will also serve as a resource for the entire community, both youth and adults, who can call on it to resolve conflict using a restorative justice approach anywhere in the community as needed and requested.


These restorative justice programs are just a few examples of programs currently serving Marin, illustrating what is possible with restorative justice. Many local communities are also utilizing restorative justice informally, as Marin City has. Both formal and informal practices improve our schools and the administration of justice, strengthen social cohesion and help stop the school-to-prison pipeline. Restorative justice practices are also used in businesses, law enforcement, churches, community organizations, and even in the District Attorney's Office. The Transformative Justice Institute has assisted our office in teambuilding and holding courageous conversations. Its founder, Rochelle Edwards, says, "Communication creates community." Maintaining community has never been more important in our lifetimes than at this isolating moment in time.

1 Alcohol Justice promotes evidence-based public health policies and organizes campaigns with diverse communities and youth against the alcohol industry’s harmful practices. Have you ever seen materials warning about the dangers of "alcopops," alcohol that tastes like candy? Have you ever noticed that many stores stock these sweet alcoholic drinks out of arms reach of youth? You can thank Alcohol Justice for measures like this.

2 Alcohol Justice also has “Youth for Justice,” leadership programs and a year-round Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) program for Latinx youth. Youth learn about community organizing principles for AOD prevention and learn Latino-Indigenous culture as a source of strength, motivation and self-esteem. To learn more about Alcohol Justice’s programs, check out its website.