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Restorative justice in Virginia

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VPM News Focal Point
Many agencies in Virginia are looking for ways to beat the street. With its roots in Mennonite practices, restorative justice seeks to break cycles of recidivism and incarceration.

Restorative justice is a practice that originated in the 1970s. But how does it work, and why is it being used? Many agencies turn to it as a practice in an effort to reduce punitive measures.


BILLY SHIELDS: Welcome to the south side city of Danville, where refurbished tobacco warehouses bear witness to the problems of the street. Project Imagine is an entire department here tasked with aiding those under 21 using an approach called restorative justice.

ROBERT DAVID SR. (VIOLENCE PREVENTION MANAGER, CITY OF DANVILLE): Project Imagine, we work with high risk and gang related youth, and the object of Project Imagine, hence the name, means that the city had a motto of "Reimagine That", how the city could look. And so, my question was, how do you reimagine something that you never had an image of? And the population that we worked with didn't really have an image of what success looked like as far as mainstream, what we may call success. So, we named it after that because it is our project to give them an image of a greater life.

BILLY SHIELDS: Robert David says it's an approach aimed at disrupting what advocates call the school to prison pipeline, where long school suspensions or expulsions end up increasing the likelihood that youth will land in prison.

ROBERT DAVID SR.: An example, there was a young lady, a couple of years ago, who was suspended from school and one of the school officials said that she had no redeemable qualities. She was expelled. Project Imagine came into play, we assisted her in getting her to a GED program, which she completed within two months.

BILLY SHIELDS: But what is restorative justice exactly? How did it develop? What does it aim to do?

CHLO'E EDWARDS (POLICY DIRECTOR, NEW VIRGINIA MAJORITY): When people talk about restorative justice, generally, we're talking about the idea of strengthening relationships, working on collaborative problem solving, and when it comes to harm, giving a voice to the person harmed, but also the person that's causing the harm. And when everyone's invested in this process, we get results, whether that's decreased suspensions in schools or lessening of crime in the criminal justice field.

SYLVIA CLUTE (PRESIDENT, ALLIANCE FOR UNITIVE JUSTICE): Restorative justice began in the United States in the 1970s by Mennonites who were volunteering in a juvenile court. Restorative justice is a conflict resolution process that seeks to address conflict and hold the offender accountable in a more reasonable way than is done in the court system.

BILLY SHIELDS: Richmond attorney Sylvia Clute introduced a type of restorative justice program called Unitive Justice to Richmond's Armstrong High School in 2011. She wrote a book on the topic.

SYLVIA CLUTE: U.S. public policy towards our youth took a drastic turn and a very retributive direction. We adopted zero tolerance school discipline.

BILLY SHIELDS: When the program started at Armstrong, it had 583 disciplinary incidents in a single year. After two years, that number went down to 150. Clute says political rhetoric got away from true justice.

SYLVIA CLUTE: Three strikes, you're out, abolish parole, truth in sentencing, all of those were just slogans to play on our fear of crime to get the politicians elected. They were not good public policy.

CHLO'E EDWARDS: You may have a student that comes in and they started a fight. Well, the educator, if they're just focusing on the fight that the student caused and continuing on with their curriculum, well, nothing's been resolved in this instance. However, if they take a step back and go talk to that student and say, "Hey, what's going on?" They may find out this student didn't eat breakfast, maybe didn't eat dinner the night before.

BILLY SHIELDS: In Virginia, going from school to court is a frequent trip, leading to broad practices described as exclusionary.

ROBERT DAVID SR.: Example of being excluded and not being repaired is suspending a young man and never letting him come back for something that could have been dealt with maybe just with three days, you know, you understand?

CHLO'E EDWARDS: So, the Center for Public Integrity in 2015 reported that Virginia was a leading state in referring kids from the classroom to the courtroom. That same data was found to be true in 2021.

BILLY SHIELDS: Restorative justice looks at collaborating to break that cycle.

CHLO'E EDWARDS: It's voluntary, that means that if two parties that need to work out a conflict, both have to agree to the process or it will not work, it cannot be mandated.

ROBERT DAVID SR.: Let's just say there's two individuals, they're playing basketball and one of the youth smack the other youth. Now in our world, that could cause a whole thing out in the community. How do we repair that? How do we operate in restorative practices? What do we do? We pull those two individuals together, we have this individual take responsibility. Let's talk about why you really slapped him, did it even have anything to do with him?

BILLY SHIELDS: A sometime component of this approach, which is used in Danville, for instance, is employing workers called credible messengers.

ROBERT DAVID SR.: They use those experiences to connect with those individuals out in the community. That's another thing why we're so successful is understanding the needs and the authenticity of how we operate and how we provide services.

CHLO'E EDWARDS: And they're able to talk to the gangsters on the streets and say, "Hey, 6:00 AM to 8:00 AM, safe passage route for students."

BILLY SHIELDS: Chlo'e Edwards knows the value of shared experiences. Her own father spent time in prison for drug addiction

CHLO'E EDWARDS: And being put in jail for three years, spending time away from his kids, like myself, I'm one of three, I'm a triplet, it didn't cause rehabilitation. What it created was a cycle of drug use and then incarceration.

BILLY SHIELDS: The court system in Virginia is evolving, however.

SYLVIA CLUTE: So, our juvenile courts have a lot of diversion programs. So, these are, kids get into trouble, they come into the juvenile courts, and then, there's, you know, they're processed. And there are diversion programs that can be selected for them to go to and a good many courts in the state have restorative justice as one of those diversion programs.

BILLY SHIELDS: In Danville, as a restorative effort to divert youth from gangs, they are actually turning to esports.

ROBERT DAVID SR.: This generation is about gaming and there is employment in gaming, they give scholarships for gaming. Our local college here has a esports team. So, in Project Imagine, we understand that we don't push youth away from their desires, we try to find a way to incorporate it that is productive. So, what we did here is we started an esports game, esports gaming team.

BILLY SHIELDS: And there's money to be made in esports. The kids David helps are actually using that as a source of income, a creative solution aimed at beating the streets.

ROBERT DAVID SR.: And we use evidence-based theoretical principles and methods in order to improve self-efficacy and things like that, so what we're talking about is entrepreneurship, but maybe not like entrepreneurship that a 40-year-old might think of, but we're talking about things like braiding hair or art or music or audio visual.

BILLY SHIELDS: From Richmond to Danville, an idea that started with Mennonite court volunteers is sweeping departments and agencies all over the state.

CHLO'E EDWARDS: I think restorative justice can be looked at a broader level, when we talk about the concept of truth telling and reconciliation, repairing the harm caused.

ROBERT DAVID SR.: To me, restorative justice is responsibility to repair in equitable spaces.

BILLY SHIELDS: For VPM News, I'm Billy Shields.

Billy Shields is a multimedia journalist with VPM News Focal Point.
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