In 2013, the Yolo County District Attorney introduced the Neighborhood Court, “a restorative justice program initiated by the Yolo County District Attorney’s office in cooperation with the Davis and UC Davis Police Departments.”
The Neighborhood Court uses an alternative approach to law enforcement, seeking “to address nonviolent and low level crimes through community-based solutions to swiftly redress the harm caused by these offenses outside of the traditional criminal justice system. The purpose of this program is to address criminal violations that impact the quality of life of our neighborhoods.”
While many of the participants have lauded the success of the program, it is quite limited in scope to mostly victimless crime.
Last week, voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 47, which reduces drug and petty theft crimes to misdemeanors. Law enforcement has mostly taken the position of Davis Police Chief Landy Black, arguing, “Prop. 47 would be disastrous to the prospect of assuring safe neighborhoods, especially here in Davis. There would be less safety in our neighborhoods and more victims of crime — a markedly lower quality of life.”
However, reformers see an opportunity to expand successful restorative justice programs to cover offenses like drug possession and petty theft.
The Vanguard spoke this week with Lisa Rea, a Davis resident, who heads up Restorative Justice International, “a global association and network with over 3600 members founded in 2008 to support and expand restorative justice efforts worldwide. RJI’s founder and president is Lisa Rea, a national and international restorative justice expert with 20 years experience in the field.”
Ms. Rea’s work has focused on bringing restorative justice to victims of violent crime nationally and around the globe.
Lisa Rea told the Vanguard that she believes that the passage of Prop. 47 will pave the way for an expansion of restorative justice programs, not only locally but across the state.
“So many of these non-violent offenders that now are going to be diverted away from prison, there’s a way to hold them accountable,” she said. “That’s what restorative justice is all about.”
“How do we do that?” she asked rhetorically. “We’ve always believed that not all drug offenders should be in prison for long sentences and there’s ways of sanctioning any offender, non-violent or violent, in ways that promote restorative justice.”
When Sujatha Baliga came to Davis in January of 2013, she explained that restorative justice represents a “paradigm shift” or a “different way to think about justice.” Today when there’s a crime, she said, we think in terms of “What law was broken? Who broke it? And how do we punish that person?”
“Restorative justice asks a very different set of questions,” she continued. “It asks what harm was done, what needs have arisen, and whose obligation is it to meet those needs?”
She said that rather than state-centered, it focuses on the mending of human relations and begins with the victims being asked their needs and how we would go about healing that.
“It posits that crime is a violation of people and interpersonal relationships,” she said. “Those violations create obligations. And that central obligation is to do right by the people that you have harmed.”
This is what Lisa Rea meant when she stated, “There are ways to hold offenders accountable to their victims as much as possible directly and also ways of making sure that offenders pay back their communities through certain types of programming.”
“I think the state and the counties have to be creative,” she said. “We haven’t seen a lot of creativity in California.”
Here in Yolo County, she said, we have Neighborhood Court. “That’s fine, but I think the county should go a lot further.” She’s supportive of programming that allows for in-custody restorative justice.
“That would look like bringing victims and offenders together in custody,” she said. “I directed an in-custody restorative justice using victims and offenders who were surrogates.”
She did this in Texas way back in the 1990s. “It’s an approach where you bring the victims into the system and you make sure that offenders know that they injured a real human being, the victim. It’s very important in transforming the offender in a way that they see what they did.”
Ms. Rea stated, “If we don’t start going deeper when we respond to crime, to change the actions of an offender, to change how they view what they did, then we’re going to see offenders violent or otherwise coming back into the system.”
“This is [the] ultimate of rehabilitation,” she said noting “I don’t even like using that word.”
“It’s really about changing (and) transforming lives,” Ms. Rea said. “Victims need to be a part of this. That’s something that you don’t see a lot of, at least here in California.”
Currently, the Neighborhood Courts, for the most part, are stilling dealing with crimes without victims. Ms. Rea stated, “They need to go a lot further and this is an opportunity to do it.”
“Clearly what the state of California has shown through the passage of Prop. 47 is the public wants to see change and they don’t want to spend $55,000 a year or higher on each offender going to state prison,” she said, noting that there are people in prison that most Californians do not believe should be there. “We get that message, so now what? That’s why restorative justice is so important because it’s a paradigm shift and it’s really something that’s caught on across the country.”
“We have to look at the impact of crime on victims,” she said. “If you don’t include that piece it’s a big mistake. Victims of crime need to be brought into the system because generally they’re angry at the way the system has treated them. So how can we restore victims as much as possible but hold offenders accountable?”
“It’s not about letting somebody off the hook, whatever the offense. They (the voters) don’t want that to happen, they want offender accountability,” she said. The question is what that looks like and how we translate that into a program on the state or local level.
While, she said, “there are no easy answers,” she noted that “there are a lot of model programs and approaches that reflect restorative justice that can be implemented.”
This might make a lot of sense for petty theft, which is actually among the listed crimes on the Neighborhood Courts guide. But how does this work with drug offenses, which, while there may be victims – family members, friends, co-workers, employers – may also be relatively victimless.
Indeed, there was a 2009 journal article from Michael O’Hear out of the Marquette University Law School, published in the Stanford Law and Policy Review.
Professor O’Hear writes that specialized drug treatment courts have grown in popularity, “in large part from the unpopularity of what is generally seen as the principal policy alternative, that is, a continued reliance on the traditional criminal justice responses to drug offenses– or, more colloquially, on the ‘war on drugs.’”
Professor O’Hear notes, “Public support for the war flagged as it became clear that many drug offenders were unresponsive to threats of harsh sentences, (and) prison populations (and hence prison budgets) were escalating wildly…”
The professor proposed an alternative model for drugs courts, built around principles of restorative justice. He notes that, despite the rapid growth of such programs, drug cases “have generally been omitted from their coverage.”
He cites a program from Milwaukee, The Milwaukee Community Conferencing Program, or CCP, which “takes cases of nonviolent crime referred by line prosecutors prior to sentencing, and often prior to charging.”
He writes, “At the conference, CCP participants discuss the offense and its impact on the victim and the community more generally. They next try to reach an agreement as to what the offender will do to repair the harm. Agreements are embodied in writing, and include specific conditions for the offender that must be satisfied by a particular date. ‘Conditions often include some form of reflection (an essay, painting, or poem), letters of apology to the victim, specific community service, restitution in specific increments, tasks related to job/school, sharing experiences with youth, or [drug or alcohol] counseling/ treatment.’ Successful compliance with the conditions will result in some benefit from the prosecutor: charge dismissal, charge reduction, or recommendation to the judge for a reduced sentence.”
He notes that, while there is no distinct “victim” involved, “the basic processes for drug cases are the same as for other cases.” The agreements that emerge are typically “community service and a reflection paper.” He adds, “The agreements also usually require the offender to undergo drug treatment, although sometimes it is recognized that the offender (despite dealing drugs) is not a user.”
He continues, “If the offender fails to comply with treatment, then another conference is called to determine what to do, with second chances usually afforded. Successive failures in treatment may result in termination and conventional felony prosecution. When the agreement is satisfied, the prosecutor will typically reduce the felony charge to a ticket or a misdemeanor.”
He writes that it is not clear why there are so few Restorative Justice programs that have followed the CCP’s lead in taking on drug cases, but now with California’s law reducing possession to misdemeanor, it may make sense for Yolo County and other counties to examine successful model programs like CCP to see if they are a good fit.
For Lisa Rea, making sure drug offenders get the proper treatment should be a top priority. “What we need to do is make sure that monies that are saved from Prop. 47… and there will be a lot of money saved, that that gets diverted into programming that includes drug treatment.”
Lisa Rea said that a lot of opponents of Prop. 47 are concerned that there will be less emphasis on drug treatment. She said, “If that’s the unintended consequence of Prop. 47 – and I don’t think it is – we need to make sure we change that. Clearly anyone who is drug addicted needs to have treatment. It needs to be available to them.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting