San Diego Tries Restorative Justice in a Traumatized Community

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Residents of San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood have long complained of their youth being targeted by police. In response, community advocates and law enforcement came together to create a restorative justice program. The program has generated both praise and criticism.

Tension had been building inside Jose Ortega for as long as he could remember.

The 16-year-old saw his home life in Southeast San Diego as a toxic mix of chaos and neglect punctuated by constant fights with his mother. Over time his anger and resentment morphed into depression – he had no interest in school, nor anything else really except for the video games he played for 10 or 12 hours every day.

Jose finally snapped during the Fourth of July weekend in 2015. In a fit of rage, he attacked his mother – grabbing her by the throat and shoving her up against a wall. He then fled the home, taking her computer with him.

He ended up at his dad’s house, where the police later caught up with him. They charged him with battery and theft of personal property and took him to juvenile hall. He spent a couple hours locked up in a cell before being sent to a foster care program.

Had Jose’s case been handled in the typical fashion, he would have at that point begun traveling down a well-worn path. He’d likely have gone before a judge, pleaded guilty and been put on probation.

At that point, he would have been at high risk for ending up on what social and criminal justice experts metaphorically refer to as the “school-to-prison-pipeline.” If he at any point violated the terms of his probation – which a significant percentage of juvenile offenders in his situation do – he easily could have been put back in juvenile hall, this time for much longer than a couple hours.

Once incarcerated, his chances of graduating high school would drop by anywhere from 13 to 39 percent, and his chances of going to prison as an adult would jump by 23 to 41 percent, according to a 2013 study.

But Jose’s case wasn’t handled in the typical fashion. Just before he was released from the foster care program into this father’s custody, he was contacted by a case worker at the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC). She offered him the chance to participate in a pilot program that featured restorative justice as an alternative to traditional punishment for his crimes.

A New Focus

Ask five different people to define restorative justice, and you might get five different answers. But it can be broadly defined as community-based justice that operates outside the juvenile justice system.

In most cases, the person responsible for the crime is required to face those who were harmed, and the two parties – along with members of the community – decide what the person responsible can do to address the needs of the victim(s). Although it first gained acceptance in the United States during the 1970s, the practice can be traced far back into human history to the traditions of indigenous peoples the world over.

Restorative justice and other related diversion programs have become more popular in recent years as studies continue to show that the zero-tolerance approach has been the focus of the juvenile justice system for decades is not only unnecessary, but harmful to young people, their families and their communities.

A number of studies show that youth who end up in detention facilities suffer high rates of depression, are more likely to attempt suicide and continue to engage in delinquent behavior.

Families suffer on a variety of levels — the fines and costs put parents in debt, court dates lead to lost work, and younger siblings lose caregivers. Issues that already plague underserved communities – crime and truancy – increase due to the high recidivism rates of youth who end up incarcerated, and resources that could be directed to community health often go to more police.

“One of the things we see with juveniles, is that they frequently lack insight into their own actions and [restorative justice] gives them that insight,” said Frank Barone, the assistant supervising attorney in the San Diego Public Defender’s juvenile division. “And once they have that insight they are far less likely to re-offend.”

As is the case with most progressive reforms in California, restorative justice first gained a foothold in the Bay Area. Officials in San Francisco and Alameda counties embraced the concept years ago, and both have well-established programs.

In Alameda County, home to Oakland, more than 100 juveniles under 18 go through restorative justice each year, and those youth are 44 percent less likely to re-offend than youth who were processed through the juvenile legal system, according to a recent study by the group Impact Justice.

While no program in Southern California is operating at that level, the project in City Heights comes the closest. Few places in California are as diverse – as many as 30 languages are spoken within the neighborhood’s six square miles. But accompanying the diversity are high rates of poverty and what residents say is an excessive police presence, which disproportionately affects youth.

Responding to the Community

In 2010, community organizers from Mid-City CAN, a neighborhood advocacy group, asked residents about what they consider to be the main sources of their trauma. And time and time again, parents talked about the bad experiences their children had with police and school officials.

“Youth of color in City Heights have historically been over contacted by police, over arrested, over suspended and over expelled,” said Sandra Rodriguez, a community organizer who worked for Mid-City CAN for several years before taking a job this year with Impact Justice.

Mid-City CAN saw restorative justice as a step toward alleviating the trauma that this dynamic had created in the community, and community members agreed. But that was the easy part. The hard part would be getting buy-in from law enforcement.

They immediately faced resistance from the San Diego Police Department and later the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. However, others in the law enforcement community—including the district attorney’s office, the county probation department and the county public defender’s office—were far more receptive.

In early 2014, all three signed a memorandum of understanding in which they agreed to refer certain juvenile cases to the newly established Restorative Community Conferencing Pilot Program. The MOU was also signed by members of the community, and, with the help of funding from The California Endowment, NCRC was contracted to administer the program.

A restorative community conference involves the youth responsible for the crime, the person(s) harmed by the crime, advocates for both the responsible youth and the victim(s), members of the community, and at least one trained restorative justice facilitator.

The months-long process starts with the facilitators working individually with the youth and the victim. Then the facilitators will arrange a meeting that includes the youth, the victim, their advocates and members of the community.

It is at this meeting that responsible youth will come face-to-face with his or her victim, or, in some cases, a surrogate for the victim. The final outcome is usually a signed restitution agreement. Crimes referred to the program so far include: assault, battery, burglary, theft, vandalism, and resisting arrest.

Success and Controversy

Since its launch in May 2014, the program has accepted 122 cases, with 68 youth completing the entire process. And though the sample size is limited, the recidivism rate after one year for youth who completed the program (13 percent) is about half that of those who did not participate in the program (25 percent).

“It’s going great,” said Lisa Weinreb, who is the chief of the San Diego district attorney’s juvenile branch. “The NCRC has done a fantastic job. We’ve attended some of the circles and are impressed with the whole process in terms in how it is helping the youth.”

The program is also getting high marks from the public defender’s office. Barone said he is confident the police and sheriff’s departments will sign on to the program once language in the MOU that prevents them from using information disclosed during the restorative community conferences regarding other criminal cases is changed.

Police agencies are willing to grant immunity to a responsible youth for the crime that is the focus of the conference, but not for other crimes that the youth admits to or has information about.

That, however, is one of several things about the program that have drawn the ire of some restorative justice advocates. They say allowing the police to use information from the conferences defeats the entire purpose of restorative justice, which is for them to engage in an honest dialogue without fear of retribution from the system.

Representatives from law enforcement argue that officers participating in the program can’t be asked to ignore pertinent information about serious crimes that may come to light during a conference.

Advocates also don’t agree with decisions by the program’s steering committee to include resisting arrest among the crimes eligible for restorative justice and to allow cases in which the youth has already been charged with a crime and appeared before a judge.

“It has to be pre-charge or it’s not restorative justice,” said Ramla Sahid, executive director of the City Heights-based Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA). “If you put a kid into the system, you’ve already judged that person. It’s hard to come back from that – it feels manipulative and inauthentic.”

The problem with resisting arrest cases is that the police officer ends up in the role of the victim during the conference process. Such a dynamic in a community like City Heights, where residents have long felt oppressed by police, is harmful, say advocates like Sahid and Rodriquez.

Meanwhile, Weinreb and others say a restorative community conference is a great place for an officer and a youth from the community to see each other in a different light than they do on the streets.

“There is tension between law enforcement and the community and there is no better place to have a conversation about those tensions than in a restorative circle,” Weinreb said.  “So both sides—law enforcement and the community—can  have a meaningful dialogue.”

Rodriguez agrees that the use of community building circle to have dialogues between community members and law enforcement is a “great idea.” But she said having that conversation while dangling a charge over the head of a youth does more harm than good.

“You don’t need to threaten a kid with a misdemeanor charge for resisting arrest in order for that conversation to happen,” Rodriguez said.

Jose Ortega says his experience with restorative justice was life changing. But he didn’t think it would be when he started. “In the beginning I was just looking at it as checking boxes – ‘what do I have to do today? Ok, check,’” he said.

“But there came a point where I opened my eyes to what was going on and began analyzing everything…before RJ my relationship with my mom basically didn’t exist. I had a lot of resentment toward her, and some of that I still feel. But I realize it’s childish and I can get over it.”


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