Justice for juveniles

Issue March 2014 March 2014 By Erin Freeborn

Restorative justice another path for citizens of the commonwealth
As we carry out our work in the legal community, it is good to consider the legal maxim, "Melior est justitia vere praeveniens quam severe puniens," which translates to, "Justice is better when it prevents rather than punishes." At the same time we also need to remember that one who spares the guilty threatens the innocent. As you ponder these maxims, we at Juvenile Court Restorative Justice Diversion also lift up the voices of those harmed by a criminal act and work with the legal community to further justice in our commonwealth. In doing so, we ask you to consider the following questions: How can we work towards justice that prevents repeat offending, holds responsible parties accountable and increases victim satisfaction?

What if a program existed that evaluated the root causes of a person's delinquent act? In conjunction with law enforcement, family members, the victim and supporting members of the community would come together to create individually-tailored, case-specific resolutions that demanded accountability while providing support. Now, imagine if we could accomplish all of this without prosecuting the juvenile in court. Imagine if a successful conclusion allowed the first time offender a second chance at a clean criminal record while still being held accountable to all parties for his actions. Wouldn't this be an exciting way to reach justice, increase victim satisfaction and reduce recidivism?

Today, this kind of program does exist. Juvenile Court Restorative Justice Diversion (JCRJD), a nonprofit diversion program based on restorative justice, has partnered with the Middlesex District Attorney's Office to lead the commonwealth in this new option for administering justice. This article explains the many steps that took place in order to make this program a reality.

Restorative justice, an emerging niche in the practice of law, is a set of principles that encourage engagement between parties after a criminal act, and seeks to assess the harm and determine what can be done to repair it, while holding the offender accountable for their actions. In the restorative justice framework, harm is understood as between members of a community, not between actors and the state. The restorative justice model differs from the traditional, more adversarial approach in four key ways. First, participation must be entirely voluntary for all parties. Second, the process focuses on the harm created by the offense, rather than seeking to prove the occurrence of the offense itself. Third, the responsible party must acknowledge that their harmful act created an obligation to the impacted party and the larger community. Fourth, the responsible party must engage in a reparative process with the impacted party, their family, school and community, rather than being punished in isolation by the state. Restorative justice aims to reestablish the personal and community relationships that were damaged.

For seven years, the Legal Skills in Social Context (LSSC) program at Northeastern University School of Law (NUSL) has invested considerable human capital into better understanding restorative justice's value to the field of law, and researching how its principles can be implemented in legislation, school discipline and court diversion. As the director of Legal Skills in Social Context and the Social Justice Program (LSSC) at NUSL, Professor Susan Maze-Rothstein has facilitated and directed nearly 100 students since 2006 to complete five distinct LSSC projects, numerous independent study assignments and nearly 12,000 hours of research.

LSSC research has shown that school discipline has become increasingly punitive and adversarial, funneling children and youth more rapidly into the criminal justice system. The JCRJD program grew out of this work and continues to help bring restorative justice into practice.

JCRJD began its work in Middlesex County, in large part because of the cross-agency collaborations and the demonstrated level of need in the community. The support in Middlesex, and specifically the city of Lowell, was fostered by First Justice Jay Blitzman and included a variety of stakeholders, such as the District Attorney's Office, Public Defender's Office, the public school system, police department and several nonprofit community organizations that attended monthly "School Court" meetings at the Juvenile Court. In 2008, after seeing a sharp increase in the number of youth arraigned in Juvenile Court and understanding that a tarnished record can create a whole new set of challenges for young people, this collaborative set out to identify alternative methods for addressing the needs of youth and families. The LSSC program further supported the work of "School Court" meetings through its dedicated research in 2010 for Associate Justice Leslie Harris of Suffolk County and First Justice Jay Blitzman of Middlesex County. One result of these many efforts was the new partnership with JCRJD as another resource for the juvenile court.

Over the last few years, JCRJD has become recognized as a positive option for responding to cases in the Middlesex County Juvenile Court in Lowell. JCRJD's executive director is attorney Erin V. Freeborn, an expert in restorative justice practices. Freeborn is also a member of the Massachusetts Restorative Justice Collaborative and the strategic team coordinating support for Senate Bill 52, An Act to Promote Restorative Practices.

JCRJD's primary facilitator at this time is Janet Connors, a restorative justice practitioner, and a homicide support services consultant at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital. Connors realized the value of restorative justice in her own life when she met with some of the men who pled guilty to killing her son in 2001. She is widely considered one of the best practitioners in the commonwealth.

JCRJD is also supported by an active board of directors, which includes two Juvenile Court judges as advisory members and other professionals with relevant experience in nonprofit organizational development, fundraising and community organizing: Professor Susan Maze-Rothstein, Liza Hirsch, Jeff Coots, Roy Karp and Amanda Grant-Rose.

JCRJD's primary partner is the Middlesex District Attorney's Office. JCRJD and Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan recently received support from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs as awarded by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security to accomplish their restorative justice cases.1 District Attorney Ryan supports restorative justice programs because they "require offenders to take responsibility for their actions, listen to the victims, and take active and concrete steps to make amends to the victim and community." Her support has been invaluable for JCRJD and the institutionalization of restorative justice and has positioned Middlesex County as a leader in the state.

JCRJD's mission is to keep at-risk youth in school and out of juvenile detention by offering a restorative justice program that addresses the underlying causes of conflict and true impact of crime on communities. JCRJD's goals include:

  • To provide at-risk youth in Massachusetts with an alternative to the court process.
  • To provide a path to justice that is inclusive of victims' voices and needs.
  • To empower youth to be agents for positive change in their communities.
  • To train community partners about the principles and practices of restorative justice.

JCRJD is an exciting alternative resource for the juvenile court system because it has the unique opportunity to consider cultural differences and socioeconomic impacts when addressing an offense. It is able to address the root causes behind an event because restorative justice shifts the paradigm with which we evaluate an event away from what laws have been broken, who did it, and what punishment does he/she deserve. The paradigm shifts to ask: who has been hurt, what are their needs, and whose obligations are these? JCRJD can then create a case-specific reparation agreement focused on accountability and support. This individually-tailored solution identifies people and systems to support a young person as they make amends, helping fulfill one of the organizations primary missions - reducing recidivism.

JCRJD also recently partnered with the Lowell Police Department to conduct trainings in restorative justice and help law enforcement officers understand the process for identifying cases, making referrals and participating in restorative justice meetings. Almost 1,000 police officers from 33 departments, spanning Middlesex, Essex and Suffolk counties, have attended trainings since September 2013.

According to data provided by the Lowell Police Department, from 2009-2011, an average of 407 young people were arrested per year. The primary offense categories were crimes against the person (136), nuisance crimes (68) and property crimes (62). JCRJD accepts referrals from all of these categories and will be able to reach more cases as law enforcement officers are trained about this new option and how to flag cases.

JCRJD's objective referral criteria offer diversion to young people of all races and socioeconomic status. This model is highly replicable and has the potential for scale across Massachusetts. JCRJD has expanded its geographic outreach beyond the Lowell area. In 2014, JCRJD intends to accept referrals from the entire Middlesex County and focus on partnership building that will lead to referrals from surrounding counties. This special initiative has the potential to change the face of juvenile justice for hundreds of youth and community members in the coming years. JCRJD's intervention with first-time offenders aims to make a young person's first encounter with the court their last and JCRJD's community involvement after a crime aims to increase victim satisfaction and feelings of public safety.

Today, the legal community in Massachusetts has widely accepted restorative justice as an effective and impactful framework to use after a harmful act. For example, Middlesex County Juvenile Court has embraced restorative justice as a diversion option and the Boston Public School Committee has incorporated restorative justice into the Disciplinary Code. Additionally, restorative justice is the subject of pending legislation on Beacon Hill, in Senate Bill 52, An Act to Promote Restorative Practices, which would provide restorative justice options for adults in the court system as well as juveniles. If you are interested in supporting this work, getting involved with restorative justice in Massachusetts, or learning more about the work of the Juvenile Court Restorative Justice Diversion program, please contact Erin V. Freeborn or visit www.RestorativeJusticeDiversion.org.

  1. Federal grant # 2012-JB-FX-0042 The opinions, findings, conclusions and recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the state or the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance.