Restorative justice helps integrate ex-offenders

By Lynn Graebner
California Health Report

What if the first thing on the to-do list for people coming out of prison was to repair the relationships with loved ones who were most hurt by the crime and it’s consequences?

A tool called reintegration circles is helping ex-offenders to do just that. Restorative Justice Partners Inc. is training community volunteers to facilitate the circles, which help offenders assess not only the impact of their actions on others, but the capabilities and intentions they have to repair some of that damage. They also look at their own needs and how to realistically achieve those.

Social workers see it as an important step in healing communities because loved ones have a significant effect on the ex-offender’s road to rehabilitation.

“There’s been a lot of pain and shame and anger and it’s hard to support someone when you have that going on,” said Elizabeth Husby, Executive Director for Restorative Justice Partners in Monterey.

At a training at Hartnell College in Salinas, a diverse group of 15 pastors, retired correctional officers, retired teachers and a diverse set of community members gathered to see these circles in action and to learn how to facilitate them.

At the March training, a mother of four with 10 felony counts on her record (who asked that her name be withheld) sat in a small circle with a close friend, a probation officer, a transcript of an interview with her mother and facilitator Lorenn Walker, a former deputy attorney general for the state of Hawaii, and now a Hawaii-based health educator focused on reentry for incarcerated people. In a larger circle around her sat the 15 facilitators-in-training.

Walker asked each person in the smaller circle to share with the group their perceptions of the woman’s strengths. Then Walker delved deeper into how her closest relationships have been hurt by her actions. Walker asked the woman what she thinks she needs to do to restore those relationships and what she needs, on every basic level from health to housing to employment to lead a healthier, happier life. At the end of the session, the woman walked away with a written plan of action, her own plan, including deadlines that she set for herself.

One of the most poignant moments during the circle was watching the woman’s reaction as Walker read what her mother had said about her.

“She’s very strong…. She can do almost anything she wants. She’s a hard worker…. She did my job when I had surgery for three full months. All the kids love her. She cares about and helps others. She has a mind of her own and is very very smart…. She wants more for herself.”

As the woman listened, disbelief spread across her face.

“I can’t believe my mom said all that stuff. It’s stuff she never told me before. …Just from hearing those things she said, I’m a little more at peace with myself,” she said.

David Dove, senior pastor at The Vineyard Church of Salinas, and a volunteer taking the training to become a circle facilitator, thinks that such reconciliation is the first step in becoming part of a community again.

“I think what people experience is what it’s like to have burdens lifted,” he said. “We’re all in need of restoration. It just comes from walking in this world.”

Reintegration circles are one of the many tools the Monterey County Probation Department is hoping will help it shepherd the estimated 30 additional ex-offenders monthly who will be supervised by Monterey County probation officers. Counties are now responsible for non-violent, non-serious, and non-sex offenders rather than state parole officers after serving their full sentences, as a result of California’s prison realignment legislation, Assembly Bill 109.

People who have committed such offenses now serve their time in county jails instead of state prisons. Some will serve their whole sentence in jail. Others may serve part of their time in jail and part of their sentence under mandatory probation supervision programs such as a day reporting center or substance abuse center.

“It’s important for the community to know that they’re not just dropping them [newly- released prisoners] off at a bus stop,” said Anna Foglia, chief executive officer of Sun Street, an alcohol and drug abuse prevention and recovery center. Sun Street is one of the many organizations working with the Probation Department to provide services to the increased number of ex-offenders that are now under the county’s supervision.

“All of us benefit from rehabilitation rather than creating a stronger more violent prisoner,” Foglia said.

One of the goals of AB 109 is to reduce repeat offenses, said Manuel Real, Chief of the Monterey County Probation Department. One of the main things keeping the mom from the reintegration circle clean is her kids. She has already had to take her teenage son to court for truancy.

“He has such low self esteem, he was getting teased at school because I was gone,”
she said. She feels she failed him and that his troubles are a direct result of her behavior.
She’s motivated to stay clean and get her life together, largely because the future of her teenage son depends upon it.

“If I don’t do it this time, right now, I know there’s no hope for him,” she said.

When Walker asked her what she can do to stay clean, she decided that surrounding herself with family, social workers and other supporters would prevent her from hiding and falling back into substance abuse.

The Monterey County Probation Department has proposed forming a reception and assessment center to make these types of social services for ex-offenders easily accessible, and in the same building so that programs can cooperate.

The proposed center would house services for restorative justice, housing assistance, mental health, substance abuse, parenting and education. They hope to have it operational by late summer or fall, Real said.

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