Restorative Justice: low-level offenders make amends in Southwest

Time-consuming but satisfying, volunteers say; offenders get an option other than fines

East Isles resident Mike Stewart said that when he was living in Stevens Square, his car stereo was stolen. Living and working in the city, he sees people publicly intoxicated or selling drugs occasionally, too. "It doesn’t feel safe — I feel scared and angry," he said.

So Stewart decided to do something about it.

He got involved with a program called Restorative Justice. In Southwest, the program operates in the Stevens Square and Whittier neighborhoods.

Program Manager Gena Gerard said Restorative Justice mandates community service for nonviolent low-level offenders, established at a community conference. Offenders make amends to victims and the community, and keep the offense off their record.

The conferences consist of facilitators, the offender and any supporters, and residents who testify about the effect of the offender’s crime on them or their community. The group then discusses the offense and its repercussions, and agrees on restitution.

Volunteers claim the program reduces recidivism and leaves their communities better. For residents such as Stewart, it is a way to avoid complacency. "This gives the opportunity for people affected to come and talk about it," he said.

This month, the program worked its 400th case since its September 1997 inception. Offenders have logged more than 900 cumulative community service hours. That’s earned the attention of Minneapolis police, who want to incorporate the program into a Nuisance Night Court pilot for downtown, focused on punishing low-level offenders the same day they offend, perhaps using less city time and money.

Restorative Justice at work: The community conference

At a mid-July conference in the Elliot Park neighborhood, Stewart, another facilitator, five residents, and an offender and his supporter gathered to address the crimes and work out a restoration plan.

The offenses: drinking in public and open container, both low-level misdemeanors.

The offender (who requested anonymity) came into the room with a large, stuffed backpack, a baseball cap and headphones around his neck. After the facilitators read introductions and the offender admitted to the charges, he was given the opportunity to address the group.

The offender, 52 years old and homeless, said he used to have a home in South Minneapolis and a farm out of town, but he has been homeless for a long time.

He discussed his offense apologetically, but also gave context to his crime. "I was drinking in public and got caught. I had no other place to go — I’m homeless," he said.

His shelter closed a few months ago, but he has since found a new one. He is currently waiting for determination of his Social Security benefits since he’s been ruled disabled.

Residents then took turns telling the offender how his actions affect their community and lives. One volunteer, Anne Supplee, said she works with homeless teens, and when they see other homeless people drinking on the street, it crushes any hope for improving their situation. "I don’t want our youth to see that," she said.

Supplee said when teens see such behavior, they ask, "I’m 17 years old and homeless — is that where I’m going to end up?"

The group, including the offender, agreed to a restorative program and signed contracts.

The offender agreed to 16 hours of community service, half at the Greater Lake Community Food Bank and half working with homeless youth; eight hours of personal development, half job-focused and half focused on finding permanent housing, not in a shelter, plus a written apology to the neighborhood organizations affected by his offense.

He has two months to complete the agreement; then his record will be wiped clean and no fine levied.

The offender said after the conference that he would have rather just paid the fine and moved on, but he doesn’t have any money.

However, he said he does want to make up for his crimes, and he’s concerned about how offenses like his affect children. "Children are affected by adults — they copy them, and adults aren’t always right," he said.

Reading from a script, Stewart said in the conference that 10 percent of offenders in the program don’t comply with their program and another 10 percent reoffend.

That claim compares favorably, if inexactly, to recent Hennepin County statistics. A county report tracked prisoners put on probation in 1996 for three years and found that 38 percent of misdemeanor and felony offenders committed new crimes. (The study included some more serious crimes not handled by Restorative Justice, such as violent crime and DWIs.)

Gerard said she’s seen offenders actually build relationships — sometimes garnering job offers — from the people for whom they do restitution.

SW livability crimes

Right now, only two Southwest neighborhoods are in the program: Stevens Square and Whittier. However, organizers and community volunteers said the program should stretch into other neighborhoods to better to deal with small-scale crimes.

Stewart, who works downtown, has been a conference facilitator for about two years and said it’s helped his feelings about his community.

"Sometimes people think they’re victims because they got caught," he said. "(Through the program), they realize that what they do in neighborhoods affects people."

Stevens Square resident and conference participant Greg Scanlan said that as a community gardener, he sees livability crimes in his own back yard. In a secluded corner of his garden, he said, there have been repeated instances of public urination and alcohol consumption by a group who just hangs out there.

He said these crimes usually don’t get much attention, but it causes him and others to feel unsafe in the garden — plus, he said, it’s gross. "I grow things there," he said.

Gerard said the program’s most common offenses are drinking in public, disorderly conduct and drugs. Mike Rollin, program community organizer, said low-level crimes in Restorative Justice means misdemeanor cases, including prostitution and occasionally felony drug cases committed by offenders with a non-violent history.

According to 2002 arrest statistics put together by Crime Prevention Specialist Luther Krueger, Southwest (the 5th Precinct) ranks second among five Minneapolis police precincts for the drinking offenses, racking up 834 arrests out of 4,345 arrests total for the city and third for disorderly conduct, totaling 674 arrests in Southwest of the 3,953 arrests citywide.

Restorative Justice has been a drop in the bucket numerically. In 2002, when Stevens Square was the only participating Southwest neighborhood (Whittier was added in January 2003), the neighborhood had four conferences compared to 1,508 drinking or disorderly conduct arrests in Southwest.

This year, Rollin said Whittier and Stevens Square have handled nine cases total: one misdemeanor drug charge, three consuming in public cases, three disorderly conduct/public urination cases and two disorderly conduct/disturbing the peace cases.

Rollin said arrest statistics could be misleading, however because many people issued a citation blow it off and never show up in court.

Gerard said two-thirds of offenders don’t even respond to the citation. She said offenders’ nonresponse spurred the program in the first place, to convey some consequences.

She said the lack of consequences spurred four downtown neighborhoods to form the project in the mid-’90s. She said in 1995 and 1996, roundtable discussions were conducted with the police chief, director of corrections, the city attorney and city councilmembers, too, but neighborhoods wanted to see action.

Gerard said they were frustrated by street crime and viewed 911 calls and police pickups as simply a revolving door. "It didn’t keep the very same person from showing up on the corner the very same day," she said.

Rollin said that’s a large reason the program was founded: to put faces to the offense and the neighborhood it’s occurring in, hopefully making offenders think twice before repeating criminal behavior.

"It’s not a fine; it means something to the neighborhood," Gerard said.

Stevens Square resident Scanlan said the program should be expanded so other neighborhoods and residents can feel safer and restored — something a fine doesn’t accomplish since the money doesn’t go to the neighborhood directly.

"A fine, for a lot of people, doesn’t have the lasting impact or do anything to repair the harm," he said.

Still, Rollin said Restorative Justice can only access offenders who show up in court, and that’s why they don’t process as many cases as they could. "We’ve consistently been operating below our capacity," he said.

Rollin estimates the program currently processes 10 cases a month, when it has enough volunteers to handle 24.

Gerard acknowledged that Restorative Justice is much more time-consuming than the traditional system, but he said volunteers and program staff are glad to give the time because they see the return.

She said funding for the nonprofit program is supplied by myriad government, public and private institutions.

Despite boosters such as Scanlan and Rollins, Gerard said, her focus is securing funding for their current programming, but they don’t shut out the possibility of expanding somewhere down the line.