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Taking Shape in Real Life

We are story-tellers by nature. Here are two accounts of cases that Communities for Restorative Justice processed.

Spray Paint and Swastikas

A recent criminal incident involved four youth painting offensive graffiti, including a swastika and drug references, on a public building. The local press learned about the incident and it appeared in the paper. Given the young ages of the boys, and the potential for the controversy to be inflamed, the police were eager for options. They wanted a response that would underscore how serious this crime was, and they also wanted to allay fears among Jewish community members who may worry about a sleeper cell of neo-Nazis in town.

The police referred the case to Communities for Restorative Justice. Included in each of the four circles was a member of the local synagogue who spoke about the meaning of the swastika symbol (many had relatives who had died in the Holocaust). In one case, a powerful lesson was taught on the function of a “look-out” when the Jewish representative pointed to thousands who knew about the Holocaust but tragically failed to raise alarm. By the end of each meeting, the group had worked towards a plan of repair. That plan included landscaping at the synagogue alongside congregants, visiting the Holocaust memorial in Boston, community service at a Jewish retirement home, restoring public park benches defaced by other youth, and developing face-saving lines to escape/prevent harm in the future (e.g., “I can’t do this. I’m meeting my brother for basketball.” Or “Hey, this is boring. Let’s go play video games.”). In one case, a youth secured a summer job at his community service site. Another youth continued to volunteer hours well beyond the requirements contained in the plan of repair.

In anonymous evaluations after this case, the parties were pleased that the crime “had a face,” both on the offender side and the victim side. Real boys — with a desire to belong, to make an impact in the world — caused this harm. And real victims — people who had lost loved ones under this symbol — were affected by that harm. Without a restorative justice option, the police would have had to arrest the boys and they would have appeared before a judge who may have imposed a sentence.

Afterwards, one boy said, “I learned that it’s never too late to do the right thing.” A Jewish community member said, “This young man could have acted just to make us happy. That would have been a waste of time for all of us. Instead, he showed real maturity, insight, and a desire to learn how his mistake had hurt us. What a great process.” The police officer said, “Now, when I see these boys around town, I won’t see kids who messed up. I’ll see them for everything they did to make right.”

Lost Earnings

On a warm day, after finishing a day on the job doing gardening, a young woman went for a peaceful, refreshing swim. When she returned to the belongings she’d left on the shore (where she had left them dozens of times before), she found them disturbed, her underclothes strewn about and her wallet missing. It had contained her earnings for an entire weekend of work, the money that was to feed her children for the next week.

Frantic, she turned to nearby beachgoers, all of whom sought to help her, to no avail. “It took a lot of energy, action, and time for a lot of people that day,” she recalled. The police were called and launched an investigation. In a short time, they learned of three girls seen near her things. Within 24 hours, they identified the girls, each of whom eventually admitted to her part and gave back her “share” of the takings. The police separately met with victim, the girls and their parents, offering them the option of restorative justice.

After preparation with C4RJ personnel, the woman met with the girls, first hearing of events, and then slowly and thoughtfully let them know how their impulsive actions had affected her — how mortified she was that they had seen her underclothing, how foolish she felt having left her belongings unattended, how betrayed she felt that she had always been able to do so before because she trusted the other beachgoers, and, finally, how panicked she was at the loss of money which was to support her needy family.

Each girl, embarrassed and moved by her story, apologized and pledged to fulfill a restorative agreement. “I could not have lived knowing what I’d done if I hadn’t had a chance to apologize,” said one. All three performed community service, wrote apologies to the woman, and worked extensively with C4RJ volunteer facilitators on activities to help them examine and improve their judgment and decision making. After attending their closing circles, the young woman was very impressed, saying she felt at peace about the incident. She had been reassured that she hadn’t been personally targeted and that the girls had been given a chance to learn from their harmful actions.

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