Why We Believe in Restorative Justice: An Interview With OurRJ's Program Planner

Our Development Officer, Meghan Higgins, sat down with our Program Planner & Circle Keeper, Mariam Levy, to catch up about OurRJ's work, the power of restorative justice, and what she's looking forward to for OurRJ in 2017.

As both a youth practitioner and a trained social worker, why are you drawn to restorative justice work?

Mariam: I think the reason that I’m drawn to it is because it feels so powerful. I think that what young people need is the chance to be heard and respected in their own voice. And they also really need to feel supported and to feel like they’re a part of a community that really cares about them. And I just think that this is a beautiful process for bringing those two things together. And a way to really help them feel like they are empowered to have this voice and to feel a connection with the people around them, with whom they’re often in conflict. And I think I also see more and more, as I’ve done this work for a few years, just how much communication and negative communication happens opnline. To be able to help young people to come together and really have to see each other face to face, I think that can be really powerful because I think they don't otherwise necessarily, maybe never, have to face the harm they’ve done or face in a personal way someone who has received the consequences of their actions.

Meghan: Thats an interesting point. Confronting conflicts face to face, in person, is a challenge.

Mariam: Some of it is bringing it back to physical, interpersonal conversation. And its really important for grown ups too. I also think that it [restorative justice] is so simple and thats whats so beautfiul about it. And one thing I’ve always liked about it is that I feel like everybody needs it. It’s really beneficial for me to sit through it. I think its really beneficial for the adults to sit through it...It’s not only good for some people. Everybody needs it.

Can you tell me about a success story from a case? 

Mariam: One case that stands out is [participant]. When I first met [the participant], I sort of asked her what she would have done differently that day [day of the offense] or what would it be like to sit in circle with the police officers involved. So when I first asked her not long after meeting her, what it would be like sitting in circle with these police officers, she said she wouldn’t change any of her actions, that she would do them again. So she was just not very reflective or seemingly ready to engage in this.

So we had the practice circle at school, with her school support people that we found out through talking with her and her mom that she felt very comfortable with. We had the support circle and she was wonderful in it and she was able to talk about what had happened that day. She knew what she had done wasn’t ok and she told us what she would want to say to them. We also had all of the other adults talk about mistakes that they had made and what they had to do to try and repair the harm afterwards and I think that [participant] was really touched by that, seeing other people who had made mistakes.

And so then we got together a couple of weeks later with one of the police officers in the circle again, at school with her dad and with some of the same school support people who had been there at the practice circle. And in the circle it was just such an overwhelming feeling of support for [the participant] and love for her and all these people able to say how impressed they were with her. And then her being able to be so eloquent in expressing how she knew what she did wasn’t ok and to take full accountability for the part that she had played.

And the police officer was just so blown away, she was like, ‘This is not the same kid.’ She was really concerned before about the circle and didn’t think it was going to work. But she was so amazed and she just told [the participant], ‘I am so impressed with you, this is like a whole different person I’m seeing.’ We were talking about the reparation agreement and the police officer was saying 'I’d really like to keep in touch with you and check in with you every week.’ And [the participant] was like, ‘Can we make it twice a week?’

And so, it was just, i think everybody left with this incredible feeling that instead of a kid going in front of a judge and maybe being shamed or punished, this kid was being shown an image of herself as someone who really is strong and powerful in a powerful way, and who has all the potential to be connected to all of these adults in a positive way. And she just came out of that circle so buoyed and so ready to go. The other part of the agreement is that she’s going to be a leader and help the school counselor lead these emotional intelligence classes and she was all excited about that. So just seeing her in the role of leader, of a proud kid, instead of, this sort of shamed and punished kid was really incredible.

Can you discuss some of the differences in managing Middlesex District Attorney’s Office (delinquency) versus Children Requiring Assistance (non-criminal offenses) cases?

Mariam: Yeah I mean I think that the MDAO cases are generally a little bit more focused. So there’s been some specific issue or incident, and it may be that often or always, circles expand outward from that initial issue. But there is this focal point and there is this reparation agreement.

Whereas, I feel like with CRA cases, there’s going to be so many issues. I think with the MDAO cases, it’s much more likely that you come up with the reparation agreement and for most of them, you’ll work through that reparation agreement and it will be done. Whereas with CRA cases, there will be multiple restorative agreements that come out of circles that will then need to be looked at again and shifted. It’s much more about bringing people together multiple times and working to build a community.

With the CRA cases, I feel like the parents and the young person are often on opposite teams. So I think that what it takes to just bring families together is much greater. And i mean, families have spent however many years that young person has been alive building this dynamic and it’s going to take more than just this one circle of two hours to shift that dynamic that took years developing. So I think that just takes so many more circles to really start to get at what the problem is and who else needs to be brought in to address the problem. And with each new circle, bringing in more support people, like an in-home therapist for example.

Can you tell me about moments of collaboration so far that have occurred as part of the program that stand out?

Mariam: I would say with the cases we’ve had so far it’s just mostly been schools, which have been great collaborations. Like with [participant] for example, school was really her safe place so she had this community and we were able to tap into that and use that to help her deal with this totally outside of her school police encounter. And they were so supportive and gave a lot of time to the process. And even though this had to do with the police, the circles were at the school and a lot of the reparation agreement involves the school. Just being able to use that base of support was really amazing.

The other example is with [participant]. And you know his arrest occurred at the school and it was really a school-related issue. So we were able to have multiple circles that in some cases involved us really pushing back and trying to allow [participant] to have a voice in a positive way. And before there were issues, being able to say what he needed. And they [the school] were just so responsive. And I feel like that collaboration was really productive. We were able to find a way for him to be in school that worked for him and it took some big shifts on the school’s part. But it also took shifting on his [the participant'] part. And just having the conversation made a huge difference.

Meghan: Are you and Eli starting to get a better sense of what systematic and proactive collaboration with schools may look like?

Mariam: One thing that’s interesting about schools is just the huge variation in terms of their openness to what we want to do and their willingness to participate. But I do think its important. I think so much of the time, kids just don’t know how to trust in asking for what they need, rather than getting themselves into trouble. And so as much as we can help work through that conversation with them about what they need, we can then communicate that to schools, instead of just waiting for them to get into trouble and creating a huge hole for them to dig themselves out of.

Can you tell me about a challenge in a case that you have faced? Have you faced any specific challenges related to doing restorative justice work within a more mainstream justice context?

Mariam: Well I think that there have been challenges with each case and they’ve been so specific to each individual case. Whether it’s been needing additional meetings for some kids or facing ambivalence from a young person or schools not being particularly responsive or issues with a young person and their family that are so entrenched.

Especially with MDAO cases, we need to be sure that we're bringing together the right group of people who are ready to have this conversation. Because ultimately, this conversation that we’re going to have in circle is going to alter the course of what happens in this young person’s life. So in order to do that well, you really need time in order to prepare people, to know who should be there for that conversation, to make sure you have time have all the conversations you need to during prep so that the work that needs to be done during that circle can be done to the best extent that it can, with everyone there ready and willing to engage.

Whereas with CRA cases, there will be multiple restorative agreements that come out of circles that will then need to be looked at again and shifted. It’s much more about bringing people together multiple times and working to build a community.

With the CRA cases, I feel like the parents and the young person are often on opposite teams. So I think that what it takes to just bring families together is much greater. And I mean, families have spent however many years that young person has been alive building this dynamic and it’s going to take more than just this one circle of two hours to shift that dynamic that took years developing. 

What is your vision for the OurRJ moving into the new year?

Mariam: What I’m really excited for is just us figuring out our system really well. Figuring out all the kinks and how we introduce this process to different audiences. Just as new things come up, it’s really exciting to learn from. So that’s exciting to kind of streamline our process and continue to get better all the time at what we’re doing.

I’m also really excited about building new relationships in the community, with the Family Resource Center, with the different school stakeholders. We’re really looking forward to the training we’re going to do in Lowell at UTEC in early April that’s hopefully going to provide more visibility for OurRJ and get more people interested in being part of circles or facilitating a circle.

Finally, I’m also really excited about working with young people and getting some support people in circles who have experienced some of the same things as the kids that we’re working with, but are maybe a few years older and can offer some support. And can relate to those experiences and can also just help give some guidance and be another resource in the community. So that’s really exciting, because a lot of this work is building more resources in the community to draw from and to gather around these young people as a more constant and supportive presence for them.