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Restorative conferencing emphasizes community role

Mayte Benitez

Mayte Benitez

 

Restorative Community Conferencing
National Conflict Resolution Center is seeking City Heights community members who want to participate. If interested, please call (619) 398-0494

For young City Heights residents, a bad decision can lead to more than trouble with the law – it can determine their future.

One City Heights-based project is trying to change that, it is called Restorative Community Conferencing, which is being facilitated by National Conflict Resolution Center. Most referrals come from the San Diego County Probation department, as well as the District Attorney and Public Defender's office, said Bridget Lambert, development officer at the National Conflict Resolution Center.

The project is important in City Heights because young people "get to see that they do get a second chance, that they are worth more than a label," said Mayte Benitez, a restorative community conference specialist with the resolution center. "I feel like a lot of kids come in thinking 'I'm a criminal. I was handcuffed.' "

But the program is equally focused on victims and community, Lambert said.

"One of our main challenges, in the success of this, is the acceptance by community members and people that have been harmed of approaching these situations in a non-punitive way," she said.

Benitez said the group has worked with about 30 young people within a restorative justice framework to promote health and safety as part of the Building Healthy Communities Initiative, a 10-year, $1 billion effort to change the way that health happens in 14 communities in California, including City Heights.

"We were really want to people call us and be a part of these circles," Lambert said. They are seeking City Heights community members of all ages to participate and, although they are focused on City Heights, they also accept people from neighboring areas.

Brianna Medina, 15, a student at Morse High School, went through the process after she got in a fight with another student.

She said it made her understand that when she was fighting the student, she was not just hurting her, she was hurting herself too, she said.

"It gave me an opportunity, a second chance," she said. "My record could have gotten messed up. It made me think about how dumb it is to get in a fight.

"I didn't realize how badly it impacted my family."

Benitez said this kind of perspective is the goal of restorative justice.

"Restorative justice pretty much says that through dialog you hold yourself accountable," Benitez said. "You identify what harm you caused, and then you try to repair it as much as you can."

She said that she works with the offender in three to four premeetings to prepare him or her for the experience, where she asks them tough questions they might encounter. For them, a chance to be heard is important.

We say, "You will not be interrupted [while] you share your story," she said. "That usually gets them. That usually gets them wanting to talk more about what happened."

Restorative justice uses different language than traditional criminal-justice concepts. The criminal-justice system focuses on what law was broken, who broke it and what is the appropriate punishment, Benitez said. In the restorative justice process, instead of victims there are people harmed and instead of punishment there is restoration, which focuses on a five-step action plan, she said. People harmed are generally understanding and eager to work through the process.

"They understand that kids make mistakes," she said. They say, "I'm willing to do this because I was a kid once."

Each conference is specifically crafted for the individual participants, talking about this event and the fallout from this action, Lambert said.

"It can literally be anything that the kid feels by doing that I'm going to understand what I did, and I'm sure that by doing that I'm not going to do it again," Benitez said

Examples could be writing an apology letter, getting a job, or attending family counseling.

"The process really succeeds because the community is involved," Lambert said. Besides the young people, their family and the person harmed, many community members are involved in the discussion.

"It is really about empowering participants to define what justice means for them," she said.

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