The Healing Quality of Restorative Circles for Young Offenders

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Author: Magda A. Cabrero, Ed.D. in Education, Curriculum, Instruction & School Administration, is a retired educator from Fairfax County Public Schools in VA and now serves as a restorative justice facilitator for youth at Northern Virginia Mediation Service. For full bio click here.

In my native language, Spanish, we use the word cariño as an expression of care and affection. It is a critical component of my restorative justice work utilizing circles as a place of healing sanctuary. In the safety of the circle of cariño, youth are empowered to contemplate how to repair the harm caused by their actions.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, for a first offense of the youth perpetrator, the police officer present at the scene can refer him or her to a restorative justice solution. This alternative to traditional disciplinary procedures involves rehabilitation, inclusion and reintegration in contrast to retributive or adversarial methods. Restorative justice is about healing and empowering the injured person while holding the offender accountable. It empowers youth to take responsibility for and understand the seriousness of the harm caused by their actions as they learn important lessons. Restorative justice educates, not criminalizes. It helps narrow the gulf between the injured party and the offender. And it encourages dialogues among all stakeholders, who must mutually agree on a restorative outcome.

I am proud to facilitate a process that may bring healing to all the stakeholders involved in restorative justice sessions. When I first meet with offenders and their family members, the youth are often ashamed, anxious, somewhat defensive, and feeling that they have little control of a process that may turn punitive, judgmental, shameful, and humiliating. Most of the parents I meet with are distraught.

My first goal is to create a safe space that will put young people at ease so they will not be pressed to become defensive. This is often quite developed in youth who have faced poverty, discrimination by schools and justice systems, excessive and unnecessary punishment, and/or traumatic experiences. I also aim to make family members more at ease, not only to assist in their healing process, but also because their calm, encouraging support is crucial. At the onset of the process I share and demonstrate in my demeanor my fervent belief that all young people are works in progress; that I do not judge or mean to be punitive in any way; that because of their present developmental stage, they are meant to make mistakes that they can learn from. I also let them know that I will not allow anyone to belittle them in any way; that we will together explore the harm and ways to repair it in a circle of cariño.

One of the most healing and hope-filled aspects of this process is when juveniles and their parents find out that if the youth comply with what is agreed at the conference to repair the harm, there will be no track record of the offense, affording them a second chance. The juveniles are then ready to learn in a supportive, inclusive circle that empowers them to step up, own up, and give back.

This process brings ultimate relief to parents who remember telling their teen perpetrator never to take anything from anyone, “not even a penny on the floor.” When I first contact parents, I hear sighs of relief as they discern caring and compassion in my voice. They begin to gain trust in an authority figure who wants to help their children. When the young offender first meets me in person, he or she quickly understands that my role is not to punish but to facilitate and to build a nonthreatening environment of care and kindness. This method goes much further in teaching lessons than does harshness.

Since restorative justice is primarily focused on restitution to the injured party, I work hard to prepare offenders, with the support of their family members, to face them. He or she must demonstrate understanding and remorse. Also required is a resolve to repair the harm and to cease harmful behavior in the future. At the end of the process, most of those who have been injured express that it has helped them feel more restituted. The experience empowers them to understand what drove a teen to harm them, express how they were impacted, and contribute their ideas on how the offender may recompense.

I love the completion of the restorative justice process. The healing quality gained from the experience is palpable. Victims seem more relieved. Teens mature and their thinking is more articulate and conscientious about how one’s actions impact society. They are more prepared to engage and make a difference in their communities. Most parents are relieved and grateful for a systematic process that has helped—not destroyed the future of—their child and other family members.