Analysis: Does Prop. 47 Open the Door to Restorative Justice Approaches?


restorative-practicesIn 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


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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18 thoughts on “Analysis: Does Prop. 47 Open the Door to Restorative Justice Approaches?”

  1. Davis Progressive

    i guess people got tired of this topic.  i think we have a real chance here for change if the authorities are willing to go outside of their narrow crime/ punishment box.  restorative justice is far more effective than a lot of people want to believe.

  2. Frankly

    My spouse volunteers for the Davis restorative justice program headed by the Yolo County DA.   We were talking about prop-47 and the bigger topic of crime and punishment, and related that, the concept of second chances (and 3rd and 4th chances too) and convict rehabilitation.  During that conversation my spouse made an interesting comment about having a hard time relating to the concept of having committed a significant crime like property theft.  This then caused us to think about all of our immediate and extended family… both living and dead… for as far as we could remember.  And absolutely nobody every served any time or had any record of any crime other than traffic violations, bar fights (and a few that had minor drug possession violations).

    And this then helped clear up why both of us have such a problem with Prop-47 and why we tend to oppose any ongoing attempt to soften laws and punishment for non victimless crime and give people that commit those crimes so many second chances.  Our immediate and extended families are more on the poor side than on the wealthy side.  Yet nobody would think of stealing.

    Stealing is wrong.  Simple wrong.  Crap initiatives like 47 send the message that it is just a “mistake” to be forgiven.  And that message is wrong.  That message contributes to the ongoing collapse of our individual and collective moral compass.

    Drug use and drug possession are choices made that harm only self, and therefore are irrational to criminalize since the punishment causes the drug user/possessor even more, and more long-term, harm.

    But theft is a crime that harms others.  And the victims of theft have been increased and been even more victimized by the passing of Prop-47.  Other than the moral hazard caused by this crap law, it is really just another tax.  It is the takers (overt and definitive types) taking more from the makers.   But then why are we surprised in California?

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      “Stealing is wrong.” “soften laws and punishment for non victimless crime and give people that commit those crimes so many second chances.”

      That’s why I talked to Lisa Rea who is a victim advocate and works exclusively with victims, not offenders.

    2. Tia Will

      initiatives like 47 send the message that it is just a “mistake” to be forgiven.”

      I think you may be too limited in what you believe that the message is.  I do not see that as the message at all. Perhaps this is the only message that you perceive precisely because you cannot relate to the idea that someone might think differently than you, but then be able to perceive the world in a different way based on a different form of experience. In many, many years of observation of women and their children in my office, I have noted that there are a number of different types of disciplinary approaches. There are mothers who, if their child breaks a rule simply tells them to stop the behavior, increasing in volume if the child does not respond. This is often not particularly effective strategy. There are mothers who tell the child to stop, explain why, provide an alternative activity and model the behavior that they expect. This is a much more effective strategy. I do believe that in non – violent crime there is often the ability to change the criminal’s view of their behavior through being forced to actually see the impact that their actions have had on others instead of believing that it doesn’t matter because “it was just a bag of cheese”…… I don’t honestly know how effective this will be in our setting with adults who are presumably less malleable than children and adolescents. However, what we know is that what we are doing now is unsustainable. I would recommend a trial of something different.

  3. Miwok

    While the topic IS beaten to death, the fact is many of these criminals are back on the streets and are incapable of learning from their experience. If the fine people of Davis are in a position to help they should give a room in their house to the recently released offender, and see how that goes.

    A recent article about a family getting ripped off had the father of the family quoted as saying “my family does not want to go back there”. As a person who has been a victim of crime like this I understand how a child could lose a lot of sleep over this.

    Many of these criminals have stolen more than they can ever repay, yet many of you on this forum excuse their crime, or even advocate they continue, “because it was not that bad”. Is this what you teach your children? To steal as long as it is small enough?

    1. Davis Progressive

      “the fact is many of these criminals are back on the streets and are incapable of learning from their experience.”

      restorative justice programs actually have been shown to be far more effective at curbing recidivism than prison.  you may want to do research on some of the programs.

      1. Miwok

        I only know the people who ripped me off are not apologizing or making me whole. When they did catch one, a career thief and drug dealer, appearing with your stuff at a swap meet every week, he went ahead with more crimes.

        I was told I stopped a good crime spree, but they never sent him to prison, and he stole my identity AFTER he was released from jail (not prison). I still pay for his crimes. How is that “restorative”?

        I cannot say if he ever received the proper punishment, but I suffered even after they caught him. How is that “justice”?

        I tell you this because you are advocating for the criminals, and not the victims. Is it any wonder I have little sympathy for them? What program turns back the clock to trust those kinds of people?

  4. ryankelly

    The current program will not allow offenders of even minor crimes to use the Neighborhood Restorative Justice program.  An example is a student who received an open container citation while standing on the sidewalk, but had a misdemeanor DUI conviction 2 years earlier.  This person doesn’t qualify for the program. The previous conviction precludes him from participating.  So, he has to appear in Court and pay the fine and he’s done.  So the benefit of really hearing how his behavior affects his community does not happen.   Maybe we need to look at the rules for participating, especially since the benefits could be great.

  5. TrueBlueDevil

    I’m open to some of the ‘restorative justice’, but it also seems pretty clear that three strikes has worked, and the new techniques in New York City worked.

    In contrast, constantly giving those going down the wrong path a 3rd, 4th, 5th “chance” seems to send the wrong message. We will see. I had a veteran police officer tell me he saw one big help, which was “coming down like a ton of bricks on the first offense, to teach them right from wrong.” He relayed that so many of these “minor” criminals have had numerous offenses as juveniles, and then 2nd and 3rd and 4th chances as an adult, that many view the whole criminal justice system as a big joke.

    On a different note, California may have just relaxed the interpretation of laws on carrying concealed weapons, so that may also serve as a deterrent.  I’ve heard that the states with legal concealed carry laws have a substantially lower crime rate (like Texas).

  6. theotherside

    This proposition was written for one purpose and one purpose only, to empty the prisons because Jerry Brown was sued.  It was written to mislead the voter and was very successful at doing just that

    “Last week, voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 47, which reduces drug and petty theft crimes to misdemeanors.”

    Petty theft by it’s own definition is a misdemeanor, so this article’s author was either misled himself or is perpetuating the deceit.  Yes, a few wobblers changed to only misdemeanors including petty theft with a prior(s).  So now no matter how many times a person is convicted of theft, it will be a slap on the wrist.  Yeah, that will deter crime.

    “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.”

    Again you were misled.  Non-violent offenders have already been diverted away from prison.  Prop 36 and AB 109 already ensured non-violent offenders would spend their time in county jail or drug diversion programs.  Nobody was going to prison for dangerous drugs unless they were selling them.  So now by making hard core dangerous drugs a misdemeanor there is no incentive for addicts to go through drug court and seek treatment.  Meth, heroine, cocaine … very dangerous hard core drug addicts will go untreated and with no incentive to seek help because it’s just a slap on the wrist.

    Since Nov 4th I have spoken to many voters who voted yes on this debacle.  Once I explained what this law does every one of them had the same reaction … “if I had known that I would have voted no”.  I am absolutely dumbfounded that someone would vote to make them self less safe.  What ever restorative justice comes from this law, will affect very few offenders.

    The SF Public Defender’s Office, Mr Brown, and Kamala Harris were counting on just one thing…what Mr Gruber recently pointed out, the stupidity of the American voter.

    Lock your doors Cali….

    1. Davis Progressive

      “This proposition was written for one purpose and one purpose only, to empty the prisons because Jerry Brown was sued. ”

      one problem with that explanation is that (a) the governor’s office did not write this, (b) the people who did don’t really care if jerry brown was sued.

      1. theotherside

        “if that’s the case, then what’s the big deal about this?”

        10,000 hard core prison inmates that are laughing at restorative justice being released from prison.

        1. Davis Progressive

          restorative justice doesn’t have anything to do with them being released from prison.  the people being released from prison now, are mainly going to be people who were sentenced to three years or less, not hardcore prisoners.

  7. TrueBlueDevil

    I think a lot of people simply don’t trust our criminal justice system, the attorney’s, everything. Here is another example.
    Santa Maria hatchet murderer facing release
    November 14, 2014
    “The doctors of a former altar boy who killed a senior citizen in a random hatchet attack in Santa Maria five years ago have recommended that their patient be released, a decision that is now under the purview of the courts.

    “In 2009, then 20-year-old Nicholas Bendle attacked and partially decapitated a 69-year-old man who was taking a morning walk….”


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