August 10, 2008

A Gentler Juvenile Justice Approach Arrives in Providence

The undersized, seventh-grade boy slumps in his chair, seething. His minimalist responses are grunts at worst, a mumbled phrase at best. Sometimes he responds merely by glaring into the eyes of the questioner. The adults sigh helplessly.

The boy has been arrested for harassing and cyber-bullying a girl who used to be a good friend. When her parents caught him making a threatening phone call, they called the police. They're furious.

His dad's pretty upset, too. He's done his best since Mom died.

Pam Humphreys is one of the sighing adults, because as the mediator assigned to the case, she needs his cooperation. She reminds him that he's agreed to participate in this mediation process so he doesn't have to face the juvenile courts, and possibly a prison sentence. Sullenly, he nods, indicating he'll try. She needs to hear his side of the story partly to assure herself that all parties will be safe with one another in the later mediation conference with the boy, the girl and both their families.

A lawyer, Humphreys works for the Community Mediation Center of Rhode Island (CMC) where she directs a new Juvenile Restorative Justice project. She's developing "victim-offender mediation" services to provide an alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system, whose proceedings often take months and sometimes end in prison. The first phase of the project is concentrating on Providence juvenile offenders between 8 and 14 years old.

This sort of mediation conferencing is being implemented in many countries around the world. It holds juvenile offenders accountable for their bad choices by having them negotiate restitution directly with their victims -- if the victim agrees to participate -- with the help of a trained mediator.

The CMC literature explains that "where retributive justice seeks to assign blame and mete out punishment, typically through a court process, restorative justice focuses on healing and repairing the damage done to all. Restorative justice principles assert that when a crime occurs, the victim, the offender and the community are all harmed."

Interestingly, Australia, New Zealand and two provinces of Canada handle all juvenile offenses with conferencing, except for seriously violent crimes. The Canadian initiatives trickled into Wisconsin and Minnesota about 20 years ago, so those states have laws that encourage conferencing. Vermont and certain individual U.S. towns are also shifting from the traditional retributive system to restorative versions of mediation or family conferencing.

In May, CMC brought in a trainer from Wisconsin to teach the protocols of family conferencing to a group of CMC's experienced mediators. The trainer devoted the last day of a three-day training to guiding small groups through the conferencing process, by having them role-play parts based on a one-paragraph scenario that gave only the most basic facts of the crime.

I was there observing the mediators practice what they'd learned by play-acting the people involved in the boy's crime. In fact, the boy was not a seventh grader, but a mature woman whose natural gift for acting and extensive experience working at the Training School produced a painfully credible performance as the belligerent, withholding, seething adolescent.

As the drama unfolded, observers and participants could see how conferencing worked and how to handle random problems that came up in the simulation. Most importantly, we saw how emotional conferences can become, even though this one wasn't real.

As the improvisation proceeded, Humphreys used a combination of threat and empathy to get the "boy" to talk. At last he spat out that he and the girl had been best friends in grade school, but that as they entered middle school, she grew quickly while he did not. She began to tease him in front of other people, often about his size. Begging her to stop only seemed to urge her on. So he fought back the only way he could think of. He's now sorely remorseful, but mostly because of all the fuss his bad behavior generated. And he was sticking doggedly to his story that she started the fight with her teasing.

Humphreys then met with the girl and her family. Details continued to unfold.

The most poignant moment of the conference itself, when everyone finally got together, was the conversation between the two seventh graders. Had it taken place months ago, it would have saved everyone much pain and misery.

The silly girl was surprised to find he was so sensitive about his size. And yes, he had asked her to stop, but she thought he was playing, just as she was. Now that she could see his hurt and anger, and having gotten him in so much trouble to boot, she was really upset.

She revealed that she'd been teasing him because she had a crush on him and didn't know what else to do. (The young woman playing the girl explained later that she had been cruel to a boy under exactly those circumstances, when she was in middle school.) Flattered by this revelation and new perspective, the boy's anger lost its heat.

Both kids were mortified and sorry. They agreed to be friends again. The girl's family no longer demanded restitution since their daughter had clearly been part of the problem. The boy was thrilled to have the matter cleared up.

As I sat there, I kept thinking that traditional punishment systems would probably not have gotten to the root of this problem.

Humphreys now has people properly trained to conduct these mediations. And she has her first real case. The project is under way. She says, "Hopefully, in time, we can expand conferencing to other districts and towns statewide."

I hope so too. Juvenile wrong-doers learn a great deal from this sort of structured talking. They learn almost nothing from zero- tolerance policies and traditional, knee-jerk punishments.

Julia Steiny, a former member of the Providence School Board, consults for government agencies and schools; she is co-director of Information Works!, Rhode Island's school-accountability project. She can be reached at [email protected] , or c/o EdWatch, The Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, RI 02902.

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