D.C. Prosecutors, Once Dubious, Are Becoming Believers In Restorative Justice

Jul 2, 2019
Originally published on July 3, 2019 6:13 am

A teenager's life is on the line — but he is nowhere to be found.

People have gathered inside a D.C. government building on a rainy holiday morning to help decide what happens to the young man, but he hasn't shown up.

After several phone calls and nearly an hour of waiting, the 16-year-old boy finally arrives. NPR, which was permitted to attend the meeting for this story, is not identifying him because he is a minor.

Facilitator Roman Haferd is eager to get started.

"It's been a bit of a morning — a bit of a scramble this morning — but the good news is that everybody's here," he says.

The boy was involved with an assault. But what plays out over the next three hours is a restorative justice conference — a guided conversation between a juvenile who broke the law and the person whom the juvenile hurt.

If the program works, the victim and the offender discuss what happened and agree on a way to move ahead so that criminal charges are dismissed.

To supporters, the message is clear: Achieving justice doesn't always involve punishment or retribution — and young people have the capacity for change.

Culture shift

No one said it would be easy, least of all Karl Racine, the elected official who launched the effort.

"Our objective in our prosecutions, particularly since we're dealing with young people, is to put them in a position to learn from their mistakes," says Racine, the attorney general of the District of Columbia.

Racine's special counsel, Seema Gajwani, first presented the concept to him nearly three years ago. While the roots of restorative justice can be traced to indigenous peoples in the U.S. and Canada, no elected prosecutor had created such a unit inside their own office — until now.

At first, Racine says, he was skeptical. But the process has eroded his misgivings, in part because the sessions help juveniles understand the harm they've caused their victims, their communities and even their own family members.

What's more, Racine says, the concept also promotes public safety. Early data are showing signs that the program is a success, he says. The restorative justice program is not available for offenses involving guns or serious sexual assault.

Karl Racine, attorney general of the District of Columbia, launched the juvenile restorative justice program. He believes the concept promotes public safety.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Prosecutor Erika Clark says she worried that restorative justice would let people off the hook.

Her first reaction? "Oh, OK, so we're not going to prosecute you? We're going to sit around in a circle with, like, the hippies down the hallway, and we're going to have a talk and then you don't have any punishment?"

Things have changed.

Clark is now referring some of the most serious cases on her docket into the program, including one involving a transit police officer who tore his rotator cuff and strained his knee trying to apprehend a teenager fighting on a subway platform.

Metro Transit Police officer Jason Dixon says some kids are "a little past saving, but [for] the ones that you can save, this program should definitely be on the table."

Dixon shrugged off objections from his wife, a detective and some of his transit police force colleagues to participate in restorative justice. After the restorative justice conference, the 16-year-old who hurt him called on the phone once a week for six months — even getting parenting advice from Dixon, since the teen had recently become a new dad himself.

"I really feel like this program opens up doors for kids where they have a lot of doors shut in their face," Dixon says.

Members of the D.C. attorney general's restorative justice team (from left, back row to front): Alex Lambert, Roman Haferd, Lashonia Thompson-El, Ameen Beale, Seema Gajwani and Ashley Hyman-Ford.
Courtesy of the D.C. Office of the Attorney General

The restorative justice program is underway in a city where police interactions with juveniles have become very public and very controversial.

Local law enforcement officers handcuffed a 10-year-old boy this year, stirring vocal protests in the neighborhood. Other incidents with young children followed, often captured by neighbors on cell phone videos.

Racine's office is reviewing police policies on encounters with children.

"I got me"

Back in the drab D.C. conference room on Good Friday, the process is taking a while.

People have stopped picking at breakfast — chocolate chip muffins and orange juice — and have started dishing out slices of cheese pizza from a cardboard takeout box.

The 16-year-old boy's foster mom and two older male mentors insist they want to support him, but he has had a tough life and he doesn't want to grab the hands that are reaching out to help him.

"Y'all keep screaming, 'Team,' " the boy says. "At the end of the day, when I go to sleep by myself, I got me. Any clothes, shoes, anything, support — I get it because I believed in me. ... And I got 16 years of life without a team, and I'm going to make it 55 more. I don't believe in friendship. I don't believe in trust. I don't even trust my own mother. I don't trust my own brothers."

The conversation turns to the event that brought them all here.

A few months earlier, this boy and his crowd ran into trouble on public transportation. Some people in the group made hostile remarks to a transgender woman. The incident escalated, and she was assaulted.

That woman is sitting across the circle from him, looking through her long eyelashes and waiting for him to talk.

The boy slumps in a chair and mumbles while his foster mom pushes him to continue. He begins to explain: He didn't want to look like a sucker that day, or for the rest of the school year. So he spat on the victim.

The woman he spat on says everyone has struggles in life — but he has time and support to change.

"I'm always going to have to deal with getting beat up because this is how people feel all the time," she says. "How many more times am I going to go through this?"

But, she also says, she agreed to come to this session because she saw something more in this teenager during that bad day on the subway: fear or regret, unlike the other young people involved with the assault. The woman has one request: She wants this boy to promise to stand up for other LGBTQ people getting harassed like she did.

"This was a hate crime," she says.

The boy asks everyone else to leave the room. Later, they say, he apologized — and she accepted.

A clean sheet. A second chance

Back in the conference room, Haferd, the facilitator, asks how everyone is feeling. It has been an exhausting day. One hour in a restorative justice circle, he says, feels like five hours anyplace else.

The woman who was hurt says she's happy with the process — she feels like it was "completely successful."

They agree that the teenager will go to school more often and that she'll even recommend possible clients for haircuts, because he wants to start a barbering business.

"When you make good on these agreements, we're going to make sure your case gets dismissed," Haferd says.

A few months later, authorities told NPR, the teenager is sticking to the agreement.

He has found some barbershops willing to take him, he's going to a better school in the fall and he has reunited with his biological mother. She reports they're now on "good terms" — one more relationship in the early stages of restoration.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's come back to the United States now and note that anybody who spends much time watching television in America learns how the justice system works.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW & ORDER")

STEVEN ZIRNKILTON: (As Narrator) In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups, the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.

INSKEEP: That's from the long-running show "Law & Order." The attorney general in Washington, D.C., is trying to change the system that we know so well, experimenting with a new way to dispense law and order. Local prosecutors have developed a program to connect young offenders with their victims, bringing them together to work out plans to move forward without jail time. Here's NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine says he started as a reluctant innovator.

KARL RACINE: I think my exact words was that I think the idea is a little hokey.

JOHNSON: After all, Racine's an elected official, and he says every day he comes to work with this on his mind.

RACINE: We are committed to public safety.

JOHNSON: But the D.C. attorney general says he's convinced there can be a better way to keep the community safe. It's called restorative justice. And here in Washington, it brings together young people accused of breaking the law with the people they hurt.

RACINE: Unlike traditional prosecution, restorative justice is really focused on the victim.

JOHNSON: There are a few ground rules. Victims have to agree to participate in the sessions. The program is only open to juveniles who don't use guns during their crimes. And if young people follow through on the plan they develop with their victims, their charges get dismissed.

RACINE: Our objective in our prosecutions, particularly since we're dealing with the prosecution of young people, is to put them in a position to learn from their mistakes - i.e., rehabilitation.

JOHNSON: Prosecutors across the country have been experimenting with restorative justice, but Racine is the first to create a unit within his own office - right down the hall from the lawyers who appear in court to prosecute. Seema Gajwani runs the group of seven people. Every week, they get together in a circle to discuss their cases in meetings like this one.

SEEMA GAJWANI: So I know there were two cases that were up to today, one defendant...

JOHNSON: Gajwani says that people used to doing things the traditional way have started to accept the new approach, people like Erika Clark.

ERIKA CLARK: I don't remember a time when I didn't want to be a prosecutor.

JOHNSON: Clark has spent three years in the attorney general's office, but her commitment to the law goes back.

CLARK: My mother first suggested it to me, I think when I was maybe 6 or 7. On the playground, I would try to stick up for kids who were being bullied. And just injustice in general has been very upsetting to me from a very young age.

JOHNSON: Clark remembers her first impression of restorative justice. She was skeptical.

CLARK: Oh, OK. So we were not going to prosecute you. We're going to sit around in a circle with, like, the hippies down the hallway. And we're going to have a talk, and then you don't have any punishment.

JOHNSON: But with experience, Clark says, she's become a convert to the idea.

CLARK: I've come to believe that the public is actually safer if we can do a successful restorative justice conference rather than less safe - because if you can actually change the hearts and minds of this young person or these young people, then the hope is that they are less likely to reoffend.

JOHNSON: The attorney general's office says early data is showing signs the program is a success. And it's starting to include more serious offenses, including assaults on police officers. Jason Dixon is with the Metro Transit Police. He's also the victim of a crime. About a year-and-a-half ago, Dixon tried to break up a fight on the subway among a group of kids. Dixon got in between the kids in the scuffle, and he bore the brunt of the assault. He tore his rotator cuff and strained his knee. But when prosecutors called, Dixon opted for a restorative justice session rather than take the case to court.

JASON DIXON: If this was my son and somebody saw an opportunity to help him, I would hope that person would take that opportunity. You know? And I saw something in this young man that I felt like it was enough to me to say, hey, I know I'm injured, but I want to see how I can change his life to the point where he doesn't make a decision like this again.

JOHNSON: Afterward, the young man agreed to call Dixon once a week for six months, avoiding a possible criminal record. In the end, the officer wound up offering parenting advice to the 16-year-old who assaulted him, a new father himself.

DIXON: I really feel like this program opens up doors for kids that don't - have a lot of doors shut in their face.

JOHNSON: This program is underway in a city where police interactions with young people have become very public and very controversial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: All right. This video of D.C. police running down a 9-year-old and handcuffing him is going viral. It is the third such incident in about four months where D.C.'s police practices with children are being questioned.

JOHNSON: The police department declined an interview request about that issue, but the attorney general's office is reviewing how the police handle encounters with young people.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.