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Restoring JUSTICE - Sonoma County and Beyond

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Restoring JUSTICE
Sonoma County and Beyond

By John Beck

Last summer, when the Santa Rosa City Schools District was looking for a way to curb the fourth highest rate of suspensions in the state, it turned to restorative justice as the solution.

“We were almost an outlier,” said Jen Klose, Santa City Schools board member. “We had truly become zero tolerance.”

Searching for a new paradigm for discipline, Santa Rosa City Schools board president Bill Carle said, “We started focusing on how do we do this in a different way, and that’s when we found restorative justice.”

Likewise, more than a decade ago, Sonoma Superior Court judge Arnold Rosenfield began looking for a new way to both keep juveniles from becoming repeat offenders and to help give a voice to everyone involved – something that had not been available in the traditional criminal justice system.

“In all the years I have been working in the juvenile and criminal justice system, restorative justice was the only thing that I saw that really had a chance of working for all the participants to experience some kind of positive outcome,” Rosenfeld said.

Restorative justice is quickly becoming the go-to solution for dealing with conflict resolution, school discipline and young offenders in Sonoma County.

“We like to call it justice through community, where justice is a choice we make together as a community,” said Susan Kinder, Restorative Resources executive director.

With roots that go back to early tribal councils in Africa and Native American and New Zealand’s Maori cultures, restorative justice is a simple concept: When an offender commits a crime or school violation, he creates an obligation to the victim and the community to restore the broken relationships and heal the harms. Through restorative justice, offenders have the opportunity to make amends in a conference that includes the victim, their neighbors, volunteers and community leaders. It’s a system where the goals are taking responsibility and repairing harm instead of punishment and retribution.

Since 2001, Restorative Resources in Santa Rosa has been a community-based nonprofit pioneer, facilitating hundreds of cases, working with the Sonoma County Probation Department, schools, law enforcement and families.

The recent shift in restorative culture in Santa Rosa high schools has been so effective, that it’s now being implemented in Santa Rosa elementary schools. Restorative Resources is also being tapped to help bring restorative practices to West County Union High School District. Restorative Resources is also leading restorative training seminars in Willits, Humboldt County, Ukiah, Lodi and even Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is sending a group to train with Restorative Resources in October.

In addition to the evolving schools programs, Restorative Resources is also working with the DA’s office and County Criminal Court judges to spearhead an adult program primarily for first-time misdemeanor offenders. It was developed for the younger 18-25 age group that often doesn’t have any of the rehabilitation options available to juveniles.

One victim, a young mother arrested for stealing baby clothes from a department store, sees the program as a turning point in her life. “They were able to help me process why I had done the things I’d done,” she said. “It was really helpful to think about those things instead of pushing them away like I’d done over the years.”

What sets apart Restorative Resources from most programs in the country is that volunteers, member of the community from all walks of life, serve on restorative councils and lead restorative conferences where they sit down with victims, offenders, police officers, parents, teachers and neighbors to find a way to make amends and repair the harms after a violation has occurred.

“When we get to the face-to-face part and the kid gets to hear how what they did impacted someone who’s volunteering their time to be there – it’s very powerful,” said volunteer and former teacher Sheridan Gold. “And I would say 99 percent of the time the kids are able to go inward and reflect back and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize.’”

And if there’s any question about the effectiveness of restorative justice, just take a look at the 2013-2014 year-end stats at two pilot schools in Santa Rosa.

At Elsie Allen High School, suspensions were down 60%, with 25 suspensions this year compared to 62 suspensions in 2012-13.

Elsie Allen principal Mary Gail Stablein, was very honest about initial perceptions on campus. “Some people thought it was going to be the fuzzy-wuzzy approach, and we were all going to sit around and have counseling. But it really wasn’t like that. It’s a very structured way of asking pointed questions. When everybody takes the time to listen, great things happen.”

At Cook Middle School, suspensions were down 67%, with 27 suspensions in 2013-14 compared to 82 suspensions in 2012-13.

“In all the years I have been working in the juvenile and criminal justice system, restorative justice was the only thing that I saw that really had a chance of working for all the participants to experience some kind of positive outcome”

It was part of a district-wide trend that added up to huge suspension and expulsion reductions this year and a total savings of more than $550,000 in ADA (average daily attendance) money.

Looking back on the 2013-2014 school year, Santa Rosa school board president Bill Carle put it in perspective, “The impact of restorative justice on Santa Rosa schools has been astounding.”

But, even though restorative justice in Sonoma County has evolved exponentially since Judge Rosenfeld first began trying it on the bench over a decade ago, he still sees a huge need for educating the public. “Getting the word out that there may be a better way and take a close look and it could save money and our kids may be better served and our community better served – making that case is important, and I think that’s what it’s going to take.” 

Upcoming Restorative Resources Training

Intro to Restorative Justice - 6-9 p.m. Oct. 15, $25 per person

Restorative Conferencing Facilitator Training - Oct. 2-3 and Nov. 6-7, $225 per person

2934 McBride Lane, Santa Rosa 

To get involved, contact Jessica Hankins at jessica@restorativeresources.org 

or 542-4244 ext. 303

www.restorativeresources.org.