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Mid-City CAN Blog

The New Face of Justice

Mayte Benitez sits between Dr. Cornel West and Sandra Rodriguez at the 2015 NACRJ Conference.

Mayte Benitez sits between Dr. Cornel West and Sandra Rodriguez at the 2015 NACRJ Conference.

Think of someone you have personally wronged in your life. Now, imagine sitting across the table and looking him or her in the eyes, taking responsibility for what you’ve done and trying to make it right. That is what Mayte Benitez suggests to anyone who asks about Restorative Justice.

“After getting rid of all the excuses that aren’t protecting you anymore, you are sitting there vulnerable to take full responsibility,” said Benitez. “Do you know how much strength that takes?”

As the Restorative Community Conference Specialist at the National Conflict Resolution Center, Benitez works with youth who have committed high level misdemeanors or low level felonies to make amends to the people they have harmed within the community of City Heights. She also works with the victims of crimes to make sure they get the justice and restoration they need. At the core, restorative justice is meant to first and foremost address a victim’s needs and allow an offender to directly repair the harm done. Restorative justice puts the power back in the hands of the person harmed and lets him or her dictate how things can be made right, empowering the people harmed and giving control of their situation back to them.

“I’ve heard people saying it’s a touchy-feely process; it’s a slap on the wrist,” said Benitez. “It takes a lot of courage. It’s not just facing the person they’ve harmed; it’s their supporters as well. It’s the community. It takes a lot for the youth to sit there and just take whatever everyone in the room has to say to them.”

The second oldest of six children, Benitez was raised by a single mom, moving from place to place in Southeast San Diego. Resenting her difficult childhood, she rebelled in high school, toying around with the idea of joining a gang.  

“If you looked at me, I fit the type. The bad girl: getting in trouble, earning bad grades and a bunch of referrals. I even had a tattoo,” said Benitez.

Her wake-up call came when she was arrested for fighting at Morse High School. At court, she saw teenagers waiting in orange jump suits with their wrists and ankles handcuffed, and realized that could be her.

“Now I sit with people I never thought I would talk to like the Head of Probation and the District Attorney. At one point I said, ‘You guys were the ones getting me in trouble and now we’re sitting here working together to help kids like me.’”

The missing link between the troubled teen Benitez was back then and the thriving woman she has become today appeared in the form of a court-mandated math tutor, who helped Benitez realize she could transform her life if she worked hard enough. This tutor advocated for Benitez to re-take classes and get into college.  

“She spoke to me with respect. She spoke to me like she truly believed in me,” said Benitez.

That is now the way that Benitez speaks to youth who are referred to her after committing a crime. As someone who comes from their neighborhood, she is not only relatable- she actually cares about them.

“Being able to understand where they’re coming from always clears the air. They look at me and say, ‘You don’t look like a fighter.” And I’m like, ‘Yeah I know. I’m not anymore.’ I always try to connect with them at some level. And a lot of times with youth you just have to be real- as real as you can get, because that’s the only way you’re going to gain trust.”

Similar Restorative Justice programs are currently in place throughout the state of California and each is seeing tremendous success with the youth responsible, the people harmed and the communities where the crime occurred. The recidivism rates from Oakland’s Community Works West are only 15 percent compared to 75 percent for youth that went to court in Alameda County and 91 percent on a national level. The movement is gaining momentum, and according to Benitez, the face of the justice system is changing.

“This is more than just a program; we’re starting a movement. We’ve seen what doesn’t work, so let’s give this a try because I’ve seen it work,” said Benitez.  “This is bigger than just a little conference. We’re going to create generations where they don’t just see a person as a criminal, they see them as a human being and say, ‘Hey what can we do to help you out man so you find your way?”

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