Supporters of expanding restorative justice programs in Missouri say it's a great concept that makes victims feel more involved and helps youngsters turn their lives around. Advocates range from juvenile officers and law professors to prosecutors and police.
A St. Louis teenager is among those they hope to help. The young man appeared recently before a Neighborhood Accountability Board, his third meeting before the panel that decides what he must do to make things right.
The 16-year-old got caught in June trying to steal a pack of T-shirts from a store. He expects to start performing community service and attending classes geared toward leadership skills after the holidays.
At his meeting with the neighborhood board, the volunteer members grilled him on how he's doing in school, what goals he has for the future and how he will stay out of trouble going forward.
"I know you want to work. I know you want to play ball. But none of that's good without your education," board chairman Sam Coleman warned.
The teenager responded that he wants to go on to college and play football, so he's working to make sure he graduates from high school. He said later that he likes the restorative justice approach because it's shorter than the juvenile court process and, if he follows through, he won't end up with a court record for shoplifting.
Such boards are one of several ways in which the restorative justice concept is being implemented across the state.
The majority of Missouri's programs focus on the juvenile court level, using either volunteer boards or one-on-one visits between the victim and the offender, overseen by a mediator. But there are other efforts as well, such as a program to work with adults in Greene County, a class for adults already incarcerated in state prisons, a college course on the concept and various informal mediation programs around the state.
The concept behind restorative justice is simple: By keeping kids away from a formal court process, making them take responsibility for their actions and getting needed help, young people can turn their lives around and not head down a more violent criminal path. It's often targeted at youth who commit minor, nonviolent crimes, such as stealing a snack from a drugstore or spraying graffiti on a wall.
The idea is also that crime affects not just the person whose property was stolen, for example, but the community as a whole, so community involvement in making it right is best. Also, advocates say, many victims prefer this approach as they can be actively involved in a case and in determining what the person should have to do to make it right, whereas in the traditional justice system a prosecutor's office largely calls the shots.
Little research has been done in Missouri on the outcomes of those who have completed such programs, but what there is indicates it works.
In St. Louis County, program coordinator Michelle Meyers oversees six neighborhood committees, organized by school districts, with one in Kirkwood running since 2001.
Meyers did limited studies in the past few years to get an idea of how the program is working.
In 2006, she said, the recidivism rate for those who participated in the restorative justice program was 9 percent, while for a control group of youth that did not participate, youngsters from the same area and with a similar offense, it was 13 percent.
In the 2007 grant year, which ran through September 2007, her study lacked a control group, but she found that youth who participated met all their required restitution payments and completed 98 percent of ordered community service hours. About 94 percent of the 122 juveniles who went through the program completed all terms of the plan set for them by the volunteer boards, and 3.3 percent committed a new offense in that same year.
"Not only are the kids being held accountable, ultimately they're also giving back to their community," she said. "A lot of research shows that [for] kids that commit minor types of offenses, a lot of the benefit is just holding them accountable and then getting them out of the court system. "
In St. Louis, a study provided by the city's Family Court program showed that from 2001 until mid-2005, 41 percent of juveniles who did not participate in one-on-one dialogue with their victims committed a new crime. The rate for those who began but did not complete the dialogue program was lower, at 35 percent, and for those who completed the program, it was 27 percent.
The Department of Corrections has been offering some restorative justice programs since 1996 but does not have statistics on how effective they are. They range from victim impact classes for inmates to programs in which they grow vegetables for food banks or make flash cards for schoolchildren.
Researchers elsewhere have studied other restorative justice programs and found outcomes appeared better than among those who face the typical court process but cautioned it was hard to determine the program was the reason.
For example, the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota has commissioned various research on the topic.
A 1992 study published by the center looked at programs in New Mexico, Texas, Minnesota and California and found a lower recidivism rate among those who finished such programs but cautioned that it was not statistically significant. Basically, the authors said they couldn't rule out that it happened by chance alone. Still, the study found that notably fewer and less serious crimes were committed by those who participated in mediation programs than by those who didn't, mirroring the findings of earlier studies in England.
Juveniles in three programs in New Mexico, Minnesota and California had an average recidivism rate of 18 percent, compared to 27 percent for those who didn't go through such programs.
The authors said the result wasn't surprising and is in line with studies of other community alternative programs.
"It could be argued that it is rather naive to think that a time-limited intervention such as mediation by itself (perhaps 4-8 hours per case) would be likely to have a dramatic effect on altering criminal and delinquent behavior in which many other factors related to family life, education, chemical abuse and available opportunities for treatment and growth are known to be major contributing factors," the study concluded.
That study also found that those who went through such dialogues with the crime victims were more likely to meet their restitution requirements 81 percent did in the New Mexico and Minnesota programs than those whose restitution was ordered by a regular court, where 58 percent did.
Back in Missouri, Greene County Prosecutor Darrell Moore said he has wanted a restorative justice program in his area for years and has promoted the idea with other prosecutors around the state. He thinks victims feel more involved in the process and get paid back sooner under this approach. Greene County now offers a program with community board monitoring for young adults with first-time felony property offenses. People must first plead guilty to their crimes but then can eventually seek to withdraw that plea if they complete the program as required.
Mark Smith, a career law enforcement official, serves on a restorative justice board for Greene County and said he hopes it can help keep people from ramping up to more serious crimes.
"I've seen some differences made in people's lives," said Smith, a detective sergeant in the Greene County Sheriff's Office. "That is one of the main reasons, trying to make a difference early on and preventing them from going down these wrong roads in their lives. "
In late March, Greene County also began a diversion program to handle those with misdemeanor property crimes and some minor assaults, such as a bar fight. Like the juvenile programs in St. Louis and elsewhere, if the criminals complete the program, formal charges are not filed. That program involves direct dialogue between the criminal and victim with a mediator.
"It's not the way things have usually been done," Moore said. "But we live in a day and age where we need to look at more effective ways. "
Nina Balsam, an attorney and director of restorative justice at the Center for Women in Transition in St. Louis, said understanding and programming has been growing in Missouri in recent years. She rejected the notion that restorative justice is a more lenient process for criminals.
"We like to say the offenders don't get a better deal. They might get the same deal as if it was handled as [a suspended imposition of sentence];" she said. "It's a pretty scary process for the offender to meet with their victim and have to take responsibility. "