Restorative justice in Dane County engages young adults

Restorative justice in Dane County engages young adults
Centro Latino is home to Dane County's Restorative Courts.

While restorative justice is not new to Madison, a new program is expanding its reach to young adults between the ages of 17 and 25–a move that advocates hope will address inequalities built into the criminal justice system.

At the high school level, restorative justice’s positively perceived impact at the high school level prompted a further expansion of the program by the Madison Police Department as part of a larger trust-based initiative. Madison’s Restorative Courts are now hoping to expand their impact this year by including those who are no longer in high school but are still young adults.

The Dane County Community Restorative Courts began working with clients in July this year. The process engages the community and encourages communication and understanding between community members, victims and the offender. If the offender is repentant, he or she will be given a fitting consequence for the crime, such as completing community service hours.

“If the offender completes the program successfully, then the charges are dropped,” said CRC Coordinator Ron Johnson. “It gives offenders a second chance.”

This opportunity for a second chance is crucial because it broadens the impact of restorative justice.

“It addresses the disparities in the criminal justice system as well as the disparities that follow from being involved in the criminal justice system. For instance, it makes it harder to find a job or get housing,” Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said. “So the restorative court makes a lot of sense because it gets to the root of some of the challenges by getting in front of the problems early on.”

Even though it works to correct some of the disparities in the criminal justice system, restorative justice is by no means working in opposition to the criminal justice system.

“It complements the system and helps relieve some pressure from the criminal justice system,” Parisi said. “If issues can be resolved with some counseling and interventions, it really fills an important niche in that continuum in the criminal justice system that hopefully keeps people from moving any further.”

Going through the criminal justice system also can be a tedious process. The system moves slowly and is expensive.

Restorative justice moves more quickly. Though there is no set rate at which offenders move through the program, most cases are typically finished within 60 days. Eliminating this time also means eliminating the money needed to fund this time in the criminal justice system.

“Depending on where it happens, it costs about $30,000 to $50,000 a year to incarcerate a person,” Parisi said. “Compare that to a few thousand dollars up front from someone going through a restorative court.”

Restorative justice doesn’t only focus on the offender, though.

“It also allows victims to have a real voice in the criminal justice system,” Johnson said.

Not only is the victim heard, but he or she is also able to communicate with the offender to understand why he or she committed a crime. This is crucial for repairing neighborhood relationships, a factor that would not be addressed by the criminal justice system alone.

To Johnson, forming these relationships is key to the entire process.

“Hopefully, we are sowing the seeds of prevention and peace,” he said.