Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Restorative Justice in Polk County

Two sisters, one a high school junior and the other an eighth grader, sat at the table with their mother in a Des Moines church basement.  They were joined by the Loss Prevention Officer (LPO) of a major department store and two AMOS (A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy) mediators.  As one of the mediators, I called the group together to conduct a restorative justice circle, a piece of the Des Moines Police Department’s Second Chance Program. 
By Rev. Denny Coon

The two sisters had been arrested and charged with fifth degree theft.  If the girls successfully participated in the circle, along with completing expectations from the Des Moines Police Department, the charges could be dropped.  Most first time youthful offenders are not aware of the future problems they could face with a police record.  During the mediation, the girls were informed that criminal records can be problematic when enrolling for college, joining the military, seeking employment, or renting an apartment.  This alternative process helps keep students from being part of the school to prison pipeline. 
The restorative justice circle brings together the offenders and their family members; the victim, who in this case was the department store’s loss prevention officer; and citizens, represented by the two mediators who were trained in restorative mediation practices.  Restorative justice practices help repair the harm caused by criminal behavior by bringing all the stakeholders together.  The four corner posts of restorative justice are:  1) include all parties; 2) encounter the other side; 3) make amends for the harm; 4) reintegrate into the community. 
The girls were asked to talk about the theft, which in this case involved $50.00 worth of cosmetics. They indicated they were nervous about facing the victim.  The oldest girl talked honestly about her desire to be a cosmetologist when she graduates from high school.  She did not have the money to purchase the cosmetics so she decided to lift what she wanted.  She did not think the $50.00 value would be a big loss for the large department store.
When the LPO spoke, he told the girls they were right that the $50.00 was not a big deal but theirs was not the only theft.  All thefts add up and become a problem for the store seeking to make a profit.  The girls learned that the business sometimes increases prices to adjust for the loss. The LPO also shared that if the losses get too high the store could close.  He gave an example of another store in Iowa from the same department chain that closed due to too much loss, part of which was due to theft.  He shared about the number of employees and their families affected by the store closure.  When he mentioned this, the oldest sister interrupted him and asked, “Do you mean that what I did could cause someone to lose their job?”  He nodded affirmatively.  She replied, “I never thought about this affecting others.” 
The other mediator then asked, “Who else might be affected by the store closure?” The sisters offered examples of neighborhood people who walk to the store and people coming home from work who need to pick up food for the family.  The mother told her daughters that she likes this department store because she purchases Christmas gifts on lay away.  If she could not use that service, there would be fewer Christmas presents. 
We noticed a difference in the girls’ countenance when they learned how others were impacted by their theft. Prior to the conversation, they seemed uninterested, wanting to get the process completed.  After they heard about the impact on families and neighbors, they were leaning into the conversation and engaged.   They learned their actions impacted others in a negative way. The sisters were transformed through the process as they learned they were part of something bigger than themselves.  The restorative justice circle worked as intended.
Together, the circle decided what might be some appropriate consequences:  make restitution for the amount of the stolen products, return to the store but with a parent present, and complete the classes expected by the Des Moines Police Department.  Prior to the mediation the store had initially told the girls they would not be able to enter the store again, but because of the conversation between the girls and the store representative, he conditionally welcomed them back. 
A few months after conducting the circle, I contacted the oldest sister to see how she was doing.  She told me she had recently been hired at a part time job for $9.50 per hour. She was very excited because she thought the part time job might move into full time employment for the summer.  She may not have been hired if she had a record. 

The loss prevention officer, representing the victim, played a very significant role in the circle.  If he had not been present, we would not have heard about the impact upon the store, which led to the conversation about the impact on the neighborhood.  Having all of us at the circle, the victim, the offenders and family, and the community, impacted the sisters in a positive way.  It repaired the harm done and returned the sisters to the community with a new awareness. 

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