Accountability, not punishment, is the goal at some Md. juvenile justice programs

People who work in the field of restorative justice say two things have to happen to make the practice of “community conferencing” work: all parties have to agree to the process, and everyone must agree to a resolution once it is decided upon.

As the Montgomery County Council examines using the method as a way to deal with some juvenile offenses, WTOP reached out to two facilitators in two different Maryland counties to ask about the process.

The practice requires for the offender and their victims to come together with a trained facilitator to discuss what happened, what was the violation and how to resolve the matter without heading to juvenile court.

Dana Coles, who runs the Prince George’s County Community Conferencing Program said “The most important part is to talk to people and make sure that they really want to participate” and that “they’re prepared for what the process is going to look like.”

She said the process doesn’t look to be punitive, but she insists, it’s not done without accountability. “If you are the party that caused the harm, you have to acknowledge that you participated in the harm in some way.”

Coles said a lot of questions have to be answered in the process such as, “How will that harm be repaired, who’s going to do what?” The person that was harmed has a say in what the ultimate resolution will look like.

Coles and Julie Walton, who runs the Charles County Mediation Center at the College of Southern Maryland, both said they are aware that the notion of using community conferencing seems like a “soft on crime” approach.

Walton said most of her referrals come from the Chares County School system, and that the cases are rooted in long-simmering tensions that led to fighting. The process calls for having everyone involved, which sometimes includes parents, teachers and school administrators, go over how the fighting affected everyone.

“Sometimes all it takes is a hug and an apology,” she said, to come to a resolution. “That’s why sometimes people think it’s ‘kumbaya,'” Walton said, referring to how critics may see the process as being too “touchy-feely.”

Coles said she runs into the same kind of criticism but is adamant that the current juvenile justice system can simply lead to repeat negative behavior. When people are quick to call for locking juveniles up, Coles said, “That’s not going to do anything” to solve the underlying behaviors.

“That’s just going to make them harder,” she said.

Spending time in juvenile and adult facilities can simply reinforce the kind of negative and often violent behaviors that are undesirable in broader society, Coles suggested.

Coles’ cases can involve theft, destruction of property and other offenses, but mostly involve fighting and cyberbullying.

In many cases, Coles said, the parties that were harmed come up with suggested remedies that they want the party at fault to do, but then, things change.

“Sometimes the things, the actions that they were going to ask of that person never materialize,” because the harmed party finds they got what they really wanted — genuine remorse from the person who did the harm.

According to the Harford County government website on community conferencing, there’s a 95% compliance rate of the agreed-upon remedies. Walton said the cases she handles also have positive outcomes.

Walton said she believes that the long-term effects of COVID-19 have damaged the socialization skills of the juveniles she deals with. And she said social media can also fuel the fighting.

“Our intention is really for these kids to have a discussion around conflict and come through to a resolution,” she said.

Coles said there’s another powerful influence that leads juveniles to positive — or negative behaviors.

“Because a lot of the times it starts with the adults,” said Coles. “Kids are always, always, always mimicking the behaviors of the adults they see.”

The Montgomery County Council is exploring the use of community conferencing and three council committees are expected hold a joint work session on the issue. The date has not yet been set.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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