Towards a Restorative Justice City

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #4 in February 2007]

AREA Dialogue: Towards a Restorative Justice City: Ten Years and Counting

This discussion was organized and facilitated by Cheryl Graves (CG) of the Community Justice for Youth Institute. Cheryl was joined by Peter Newman (PN) from the Resource Division of Juvenile Court, and by Patricia Zamora (PZ), who founded PAZworks and helped to start the Alternatives Peer Jury Program. Together they reflect on 10 years of restorative justice practices changing systems like the juvenile courts and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), and they start to carve a path for future efforts.

CG You know we don’t often have a chance to just sort of think about and talk about our views and dreams and visions around restorative justice. There are a lot of viewpoints, a lot of different ideas—there’s controversy—but we’ve been doing a lot of work. And it seems like it would be good for people to hear some of the concrete things that are happening along with some of the visions that we have, but also some of the challenges, and how we’re addressing those challenges. You know, we work with lots of different people from lots of the different vantage points, from Chicago Public Schools, to the State’s Attorney’s office, to community folks.

There are a lot of really concrete examples, even the really concrete example of how peer jury got started—which I think a lot of people don’t know, and I think you should talk about it. Right, because one of the things about Chicago’s work is that we’re the first, we’re the largest school based restorative justice program, probably, in the country. And the form it takes is peer jury, and that’s been great because it’s been a foundation to help along with a lot of efforts to say, “We’re not just talking about something that needs to be done differently, we’re also doing things differently.”

PZ It’s very simple. Basically I was working with young people at Senn High School every day. We were a school based community resource center through Alternatives, and I was a youth worker at the time. The youth would get suspended, they would get expelled from school and they would tell me, “you know, this isn’t helping us. I’m already in trouble, so when I’m not in school I’m getting into more trouble.” We were in a high school and you would see the same kids that were getting kicked out, later on at night, would be trying to come to YouthNet because they didn’t have anywhere to hang out. I was just listening to them and looking for other ways to do things. I think what’s significant about that experience was that was the first time that Chicago Public Schools allowed community voices and young people to actually have a say in the disciplinary process.

Now it’s in 47 high schools. One of our first trainers was a mother from across the street, and it just tapped into this idea that young people need to be part of the disciplinary process. They’re the ones that are going through it. They have a voice. They have opinions about what is helpful to them in their lives and what isn’t. The community is needed. You have mothers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles, cousins, community members who want to give back, who have experience. And most of the times it’s a very adversarial relationship with the school and the community like “We can handle these problems on our own,” rather than, “What can we do and get together?” And I think with Senn they were very wise. We had a lot of trust and we had built up a relationship, they were willing to let us go in and say we could start developing a program that would allow young people to have a voice in the disciplinary process. And it would be youth directed with adult guidance and community input. And from there it’s expanded. And when you go to other parts of the country it’s really interesting because there isn’t something that exists like this.

CG When you go to other parts of the state! People are doing teen court and modeling it after the court system, and we know that that’s not what we want to be replicating. That’s not about justice.

PN And even though we’re not at the perfect restorative justice peer jury yet, we’re slowly working towards it and I think that it always has to start somewhere. What you did in 1997, that’s really important. That’s really almost the birth of when the Chicago Public Schools realized that they needed to change how they discipline kids. Now we’re in 2007, ten years later—now finally the board is opening up their doors. They’re really listening to community groups like POWER-PAC, and hearing what they have to say, which I don’t think they would have done fifteen years ago or ten years ago.

CG 1997 was the same year that we started Community Panels for Youth. In 1997 Cathy Ryan (then Chief of the State’s Attorney’s Office) made the decision that she was going to let us do community-based court diversion. This is the first time it ever happened, and it was because we were really fed up with the way we were unable to represent kids, particularly kids who had really light cases that didn’t need to be in the court system. We were really frustrated because those kids were going in, getting probation, and then going deeper and deeper. Because of that frustration we approached the State’s Attorney and they were ready to do something different to allow the community to actually have a role in determining what was going to happen to those kids and those cases.

PZ It’s interesting how there was this current that was going through and what made it work was that somehow we tried to find each other and communicate. We saw the bigger vision of where this could go, and I think that’s what’s kind of been like a compass point. A lot of things we’ve been able to do have been in spite of, not because of. I remember when we first started talking about peer jury, people were like, “What are you doing? What is that?” We also kept it under the radar screen for many years because we knew that things were so political and we said that we have to build relationships. We have to establish ourselves with the kids and in schools and in communities, because if it’s going to survive we know that it’s going to come under scrutiny and people are going to be very critical. c

CG [Some years back] there was a lot of energy from systems people to move the restorative justice agenda in North Lawndale. There were also social service providers on board, but there weren’t that many community people. And so that initiative had systems energy, but it didn’t have community energy. Things began to happen, but they didn’t really gel until maybe 4 or 5 years later when the community said, “You know what, this restorative justice stuff, there’s something to it. We need it because too many of our kids are getting arrested, too many of our kids are getting expelled. They’re getting arrested in schools.” The community then had that foundation to build upon. And now we’ve got community people who’ve been trained in victim offender conferencing, who’ve been trained in peer jury, who’ve been trained in peace-making circles, who actually now even have an entity in North Lawndale, Sankofa, which is hearing something like 40 or 50 cases a month of North Lawndale kids. Instead of them going into the system, they’ve been diverted out.

PN Systems people cannot say to a community, “This is what has to happen. You must do restorative justice. You must do this.” What they can do is they can help support a community doing what they want to do. And I think that’s what we’re slowly starting to see in some communities in Chicago, [change] when the community is calling for it.

It’s similar to when the schools have called you, Pat, to do some restorative justice training. They’re saying well we need help. Like the Diet school, I think that’s a great example.

PZ We did a circle at Diet. It was two young women, one had stabbed the other one. And they had both had a child by the same father. So it was a very complicated situation. There was a lot of tension. And this young woman had been taken out of the school for an emergency. And then she was placed back in after 30 days. So Cynthia Chico-Rodriguez, who works in Chicago Public Schools, set up a circle. The principal was there, some of the staff, the parents, the young women, and the security guard.

It was really something, just to hear the parents and the grandparents say that they wanted to meet the other grandchild, that they wanted them not to be at war with each other in the community and they hoped that they could be friends. And that regardless of what would happen between the mothers they wanted something better. They had so much wisdom and each parent had so much compassion for the other young person that was there.

This was right before Mother’s Day. The principal, she was amazing. She sat there the whole time, she didn’t get up, she didn’t leave, she was into it. Now she’s working with the Chicago Area Project and she wants to make the whole school’s philosophy based on restorative justice. And [she wants] to train the teachers and the parents and the adults and the youth. But you’re right, Peter, people don’t have to be forced, if it’s done as it should be—organically.

CG How do we then work this so that it’s not just about people but it’s about the system? For example, with the courts, the court is fine to allow restorative justice responses as court diversion. But you walk into a courtroom, and that assistant state’s attorney doesn’t have a clue about restorative justice (RJ). That assistant public defender doesn’t have a clue about RJ. The judges in the court think that an RJ response is to check off the box that says “victim impact panel,” which may be an interesting experience, may be a good experience, but it has nothing to do with that kid facing up to that victim and collectively coming up with a way to address it.

PZ There’s too much to say. One of the things is that we have to tell our story. I think this is a very critical juncture in this work, to begin to sum up the lessons. Because if we don’t sum them up, they’re not going to be told for the ones that are coming beside us, behind us, and the ones that have come before. We need to start summing things up. Also there’s this idea, which I didn’t create, of the Restorative Justice City. In Chicago we really have the foundations to be that. That doesn’t mean it’s all said and it’s perfect, but there’s these currents that are moving around justice that are very diverse. There are people who’ve not traditionally worked together. They’ve sometimes been at opposite ends of the spectrum. But there’s this point of unity that is allowing us to move to look at what we’re doing to our kids. To look at the young people that are being pushed out, that are desperately in need of another way of doing things.

Something is not right, and so this restorative justice is a point to really make. It’s had that potential to really change things—change the whole vision—and turn things on their head, to really shake things up. With restorative justice it’s not about someone else changing. The more that we do the work, what we’ve found out is that it’s about how we change in relationship to our community and to the world around us. The more that we do these trainings and talk to people and work with young people, we change. We open up. We begin to say, “We don’t have all the answers.” It’s not about right or wrong. It’s about what can we do to have this middle path.

I don’t mean a middle path like sell out. This is a path that allows you to see things from all vantage points. If you can do that, there’s a possibility to be open to change. And it’s not just an intellectual, it’s also a physical, an emotional, a spiritual experience. It’s a very holistic process of restoration. And so, we’re all being restored by this work. We need it. We’re seeking peace. We can’t have justice and no peace. I’ll speak for myself. I’m not at peace with myself. I’m looking for peace. You know, I don’t like what’s going on around me. And so this is a way where it is helping [things] come together on a personal, a family, a community, a system level because ultimately, systems are people. Systems are people. And we’ve got to reach the people to be able to change those big systems.

PN The true definition of restorative justice is about relationships. It’s about repairing harm so you can restore those relationships.

CG What’s fundamental about restorative justice is a shift away from thinking about laws being broken, who broke the law, and how do we punish the people who broke the laws. There’s a shift to: there was a harm caused, or there’s disagreement or dispute, there’s conflict, and how do we repair the harm, address the conflict, meet the needs, so that relationships can be repaired and restored. It’s a really different orientation. It is a shift. And I think that the court, because of the sort of traditional western law, is very much about a punitive, retributive system. When you talk about shifting that, a lot of people don’t know what to do. Then what is the role of the judge? What is the role of the court? You know, you think about judges like Judge Stutley, who has basically said, “My goal, my role as a judge is not to punish these kids, it’s to help get these kids back on the right track, and I can’t do it by myself as a judge. Right, because these kids don’t live in this courtroom, these kids live in the community. So I need the community step up and help me figure out how to address the needs, to see that the harm gets repaired, that relationships are restored. And that victims, young people who committed offenses, and the community can figure out a way to make that happen.” So Stutley does it by bringing the community into the court.

Judge Hall does it by going out and saying that justice is not about dealing with people in the courtroom, it’s about providing the space for the community to have a role in meeting the needs and addressing the harm. Then you have judges like Judge Jackson, who is actively saying as a judge, I get to set some policy, I get to make some decisions about how kids that come into my courtroom are going to be treated. And Peter, as the rainmaker that he is, has played a huge role in linking judges to community projects. So Judge Jackson called Peter to say, “My church works with the school, the principal at the school really wants to do something with these kids that are in trouble, and so is there something I can do? What role can I play as a judge?” So Peter then, hooks Judge Jackson up with the principal, with some community organizations like us. We all go in together and figure out how that school and that church and that community collectively can come together, be trained in restorative practices, and begin to not just meet the needs of those kids who are being expelled, suspended and arrested, but how the church can be involved, how parents can get involved. Restorative justice to me provides a space for the people who are involved, really involved at the fundamental level, to impact what’s happening to them.

PN To add to that, people have to listen to one another. And that’s really powerful. I think that’s what’s missing in a lot of meetings when we talk about community. That people are not really, devoutly listening.

CG That’s the training. A big part of the restorative justice training is helping people to learn how to listen.

PN And people are afraid to do that. People are always in a rush. To sit down, to really listen to someone else’s problem, or to what someone actually really thinks—what they think is best for the community—is hard to do for some people. Listening is an essential skill that restorative justice teaches people.

CG It’s not just that people have to listen to other people’s problems. It’s people who are having the problems sitting and listening to each other.

PN And they work together.

CG Right. I mean that’s the difference. It’s not the judge making the decision about what’s going to happen, right? It’s the people who are impacted. The person who was harmed, the person who caused the harm, and the community [which] is sort of the place where it’s happening. Those people who matter, who are hurt, those are the people that are making the decision, those are the people who are trying to fix it—as opposed to somebody else saying this is what we’re going to do, imposing this solution on people. It’s really about self-determination. It’s really about respect. And I guess the thing that I’ve been trying to figure out—and a lot of us have been talking about this—is that if crime is about people being hurt, right, then if we’re talking about changing the system that deals with or addresses crime, then those people have to have a role in changing the courts. So it’s not just that probation decides that probation is going to change because they want to change. But it’s that the people decide, you have to change. And the people are telling the judges, “You have to respond differently to our kids.” There has to be a shift too, in authority and in responsibility. And I think our role has been to help link people. Your role has really been to link people. And yours too, Pat, in terms of linking the community with the system. And that’s really what we’re doing here. Is trying to provide more of a role and more space for community people to have a say in what happens in terms of justice.

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