Restorative justice program for juveniles aims to foster empathy, heal trauma

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Lakedia Edwards knows her son is not a criminal. So, when she got a phone call that her 15-year-old son, Jaharee, was being detained for robbery, she couldn’t believe it.

“We went to court and the attorney presented his case,” Edwards said. Jaharee and some friends stole an iPhone from another boy at his school. “They were trying to decide if they were going to release him back to us or send him to one of those boys’ homes.”

Amid the legal proceedings, the attorney called Edwards to offer an alternative solution to the traditional justice system: the Office of the Attorney General’s Restorative Justice Program.

“I was skeptical at first because I had never heard of it before and there were two main conditions,” Edwards said. “One, he would have to admit guilt, and he’d have to confront the family.”

DC Attorney General Karl Racine’s office launched the Restorative Justice Program in 2016, with a goal of reducing recidivism by enabling District youth to understand the impact of their offenses. The Restorative Justice Program team was one of the 2018 winners of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Awards, which recognize outstanding performance by DC government employees. The winners were formally presented with their awards at a June 20 ceremony hosted by George Washington University’s Center for Excellence in Public Service.

The Restorative Justice Program team members received their awards at a June 20 ceremony hosted by George Washington University’s Center for Excellence in Public Service at the Marvin Center on campus. (Photo courtesy of George Washington University)

“The idea really is to bring victim and offender together in a different context,” Racine said in an interview. “Both victim and offender can gain a better understanding of the harm that the offender caused the victim by his or her act.”

Edwards said her son was optimistic about the experience from the beginning.

“Going into the meeting [with the victim and his family], he told me, ‘Ma, I’m going to go in and tell the truth and tell what happened,’” Edwards said. “He was always honest about his role, and he wanted to talk to the boy and apologize.”

Edwards said she was nervous going into the meeting with the other family because she knew how she would have felt had their roles been reversed.

“I looked at the other mother and told her, ‘I want to sincerely apologize for my son’s actions. He knows better, and this was not how he was raised,’” Edwards said. “The mother said to me, ‘I accept your apology and I know my son will, too.’”

Jaharee was given seven months’ probation and forced to wear an ankle monitor for the first two months to ensure that he was home each day by 7 p.m. The Restorative Justice Program aims not only to reduce crime, but also to provide youth with the tools they need to succeed.

“It’s an experience in conflict mediation,” said Seema Gajwani, special counsel for juvenile justice reform at the DC Office of the Attorney General. “It provides a mechanism for young people to build their empathy and consequential thinking understanding the impact of their actions.”

“Both victim and offender can gain a better understanding of the harm that the offender caused the victim,” says DC Attorney General Karl Racine, who instituted the Restorative Justice Program in 2016. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Attorney General)

Tutors, a mentor and a probation officer all played a pivotal role in the restorative process for Jaharee, according to Edwards. From May to December of 2017, Jaharee spent two hours a day with a tutor and frequently hung out with his mentor. Jaharee’s probation officer would frequently drive up to his school to check on his progress and call to chat with him at night.

“I have nothing but positive things to say about this program,” Edwards said. “Everybody went above and beyond to help Jaharee succeed.”

In Edwards’ view, many of the teenagers who commit crimes do so because they “become a product of their environment.” They watch everyone around them committing crimes, getting arrested, and then repeating it all over again. She believes this program forces them to be held accountable for their actions and is happy her son could experience strong black male role models in his life.

“It does take a village to raise a child, and sometimes you need other people to come in and help so they understand that we aren’t just saying this to say it, we are saying it because it’s real,” Edwards said.

In the 60 juvenile cases that have gone through this program since its inception in 2016, 48 have had successful outcomes, according to Gajwani. Success is measured by the rate of rearrests. Nationally, the rate of recidivism for youth who opt for restorative justice as opposed to a traditional court proceeding is at 40 percent. Across the country, 35 states have adopted restorative justice programs for both children and adults. While other agencies refer their restorative justice cases to community organizations, DC has the only restorative justice program in the country that is located in-house in a prosecutorial agency.

“Restorative justice is about relationships between people and healing trauma,” Gajwani said. “The award is a symbol of welcoming for a very unconventional, innovative approach to doing just that.”

Edwards credits her son’s newfound maturity in large part to his participation in the program.

“Before, he was doing just enough to get by,” Edwards said. “But now he takes the effort to go above and beyond. I would like to see all juveniles go through this program rather than go through the criminal justice system, because they gain an understanding that other people care about them.”

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