In a small Solvang courtroom last Friday afternoon, a collection of Santa Barbara judges, deputy district attorneys, public defenders, educators, and defense attorneys gathered to hear retired Wisconsin State Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske talk about the heart and soul of restorative justice and debunk the notion that the holistic practice is “soft on crime.”
Geske — now a professor at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee — explained that the concept brings offenders face-to-face with their victims (or surrogate victims) and joins them with family supporters, community members, and trained mentors in a conference circle. It’s not intended to be a “fact finding” process, Geske said, but rather a “healing” method that demonstrates how isolated incidents “ripple” throughout neighborhoods and communities. The practice originated in Native American tribes and is popular all over the world, Geske added. “We didn’t invent this.”
Geske said she has seen an abundance of traumatic cases — including murder, rape, and DUIs — benefit from restorative-justice circles, which seek to shift the emphasis from the offender to the victim. “We never give victims that opportunity in the courtroom,” she stated.
Restorative justice is not new to Santa Barbara rhetoric. Nancy Davis, who hosted Friday’s conference and founded the youth nonprofit City at Peace in 1995, has long hoped to implement a juvenile diversion program in Santa Barbara to prevent first- or second-time young offenders from entering the “pipeline to prison.” She explained that the 1990s had potential for such processes, but numerous nonprofits competing for limited funding hampered implementation.
But not all has been lost. Currently, a restorative-justice program exists for minors in North County at the Conflict Solutions Center. Probation officers or district attorneys can refer cases — typically misdemeanors and not gang-related crimes — and the program director contacts the victim and the offender to establish a circle, as long as both parties agree.
“We’d love to see it countywide,” said Deputy District Attorney Kelly Scott, who attended Friday’s conference. “I think once we all start getting together, it can come pre-filing [of charges],” Scott said. “[O]r maybe it’s part of the condition of the sentence.” In many other places such as Wisconsin, Vermont, and Maine, an independent nonprofit runs the program, and district attorneys, judges, probation officers, and police officers collaborate. (Davis has spent the last few years in Rockport, Maine, where she has established similar clinics.)
This summer, Davis and Santa Barbara Judge Denise deBellefeuille will sponsor a restorative-justice class at Santa Barbara College of Law to teach the process to prospective attorneys. From there, Davis hopes to create a clinic based at the law school and pair law students with volunteers to establish circles. “It doesn’t have to be a lot of money,” she said, explaining that City at Peace could potentially fund one full-time and one half-time employee to get the ball rolling. (The county spends $216 per day to incarcerate a minor in juvenile hall in Santa Maria. In 2013, the average inmate spent 45 days in juvie.)
Davis explained that offenders and mentors could meet once a week to fulfill a plan. Such plans typically last three months and require the offender to “repay” the victim and give back to the community in some fashion. Judge Denise deBellefeuille, who also attended on Friday, explained that 92 percent of civil cases in the county are resolved by lawyers who volunteer their time to hammer out a settlement before the case is sent to trail.
Schools are catching on, too. In 2012, the Santa Barbara Unified School District piloted a program called Restorative Approaches at Santa Barbara Junior High School (SBJHS) and rolled out the program to Santa Barbara High School and La Colina, La Cumbre, and Goleta Valley junior high schools this year. Teacher on Special Assignment Aaron Harkey — who doubles as the district’s AVID coordinator — visits each of the five campuses regularly to educate teachers and lead circles in classrooms. In the first semester of the pilot program, there were 30 percent fewer suspensions at SBJHS.
The Education Code still applies for high-level offenses, Harkey explained, but issues like profanity or disrespect can be resolved through this initiative. He said he has since seen fewer referrals to the assistant principal’s office and has heard positive feedback from students. Teacher surveys and positive data will be made public at an upcoming school board meeting.