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As St. Paul rolls out restorative justice program for first-time offenders, officials encounter a skeptical public

Tamara Mattison
MinnPost photo by Taryn Phaneuf
In the court system, “we just punish them,” said Tamara Mattison, executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center, one of the local organizations partnering with the city to train and facilitate ETHOS.

St. Paul is adopting a new out-of-court method for adjudicating crime. 

Starting this fall, the city will offer a program that diverts misdemeanor cases to community groups trained in restorative-justice practices. Instead of a courtroom with lawyers and a judge deciding the right punishment for a low-level offense, a few neighbors will work with victims and offenders to achieve what the city attorney’s office calls “compassionate accountability.”

The practice, which is based on Native American traditions, has been successful in several jurisdictions around the country. Programs in San Francisco and Yolo County, California, report that participating offenders are far less likely to reoffend than if they’d been prosecuted in the usual way.

But success depends on a committed community. The program, now known as ETHOS (for “Engaging community; Taking ownership; Healing; Overcoming obstacles; and Sustainable solutions”), relies on neighbors volunteering to work through cases; their job isn’t to decide guilt but to humanize the justice process. 

Yet in its attempts to engage community members, the city faces skepticism, not only from those who think it’s too soft a response to crime — but also from neighbors who wonder if it can really change what they see as a broken criminal justice system.

A circle of  ‘care and concern’

St. Paul City Attorney Lyndsey Olson took the job a year and a half ago with an interest in improving the city’s diversion programs. Restorative justice is a familiar approach in St. Paul, though this would be the first time it’s been turned into a formal system, Olson said. Ramsey County and St. Paul Public Schools already use it in resolving conflict and addressing crime.

ETHOS will begin in September in up to two city wards (they haven’t decided which yet), where first-time offenders who commit nonviolent misdemeanors — everything from theft and trespassing to drinking in public to giving false information to police — could be referred to “circle.” The option to use the program will be dependent on agreement from the victim, if there is one.

As long as offenders complete the program’s requirements, their offense won’t go on their record, which would impact future attempts at finding a job or renting an apartment. “That’s why programs like this have low recidivism rates,” Olson said. “[Offenders are] able to move forward in a law-abiding way. And it works.” 

The program itself requires offenders to face their neighbors and, guided by a “circle keeper,” talk through what happened, why it happened, what impact it had, and how to repair the damage. It shifts the conversation from one about proving guilt to one about restoring relationships. 

Offenders have to take responsibility, apologize for their actions, and do what’s necessary to make amends. The community offers them a chance to talk and to listen and identifies ways to help through whatever services the offender may need, like housing, job training, or drug treatment. 

In the court system, “we just punish them,” said Tamara Mattison, executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center, one of the local organizations partnering with the city to train and facilitate ETHOS. 

Restorative practices place more emphasis on processing the incident, as well as its context. “The approach is to show care and concern for all parties,” she said. Offenders are “accustomed to a punitive response,” but they will open up when they’re treated differently. “It doesn’t let them off. It makes them sit down and talk about what they did.”

The city will start with first-time offenders who commit misdemeanors as a way to limit how many cases the first circles take on. 

Aaron Arnold, with the Center for Court Innovation – an organization in New York that runs, researches, and consults on programs like ETHOS – said starting small tends to reflect what communities are willing to embrace in a new program. “When a city attorney wants to develop a program like this, they have to be cognizant of what the community will accept,” he said. “There’s pressure to limit them to low-level cases. That makes some sense, you want to have your people learn the model, practice it, get good at it … before you consider doing bigger cases.” 

So far, the city has budgeted enough funding for a new paralegal in the city attorney’s office who will handle the administrative work. Olson said that was an important investment; she wanted to demonstrate their intention to immediately institutionalize the new system. The office will use grants for the other startup costs, like training community members, but the idea is that as more cases shift into the program, resources would follow.

Neighbors raise concerns

At a recent community meeting at the Rice Street Library, City Council President Amy Brendmoen introduced the program, which she cited as an example of how the city wants to do things differently. “It’s a first step we need to take,” she assured the sparse crowd. “And it’s got wheels.” 

After listening to an explanation of the program, the dozen or so people who attended had a chance to respond. After forming a circle, they raised a number of questions and concerns, including how record expungement will work, whether the police have a role to play, and to what extent circles will address the root causes of crime.

City Council President Amy Brendmoen
MinnPost photo by Taryn Phaneuf
At a recent community meeting at the Rice Street Library, City Council President Amy Brendmoen introduced the program, which she cited as an example of how the city wants to do things differently.
The questions revealed the city has a number of details to work out. One glaring example: Though the city calls ETHOS a pre-charge diversion program, meaning cases get rerouted before anything shows up on the offender’s record, St. Paul doesn’t have the technological capability to do that yet — and may not until after the program starts.

Residents who attended the meeting generally supported the city’s effort, and some already had experience with restorative justice circles. But whether the program would alleviate or further ingrain prejudice in the justice system dominated community members’ concerns during an hourlong conversation. 

Ongoing issues with the city’s police oversight commission also came up. Around the same time Olson’s office started holding listening sessions about ETHOS, leaders of the city’s Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission (PCIARC) resigned, saying Mayor Melvin Carter and his administration didn’t support their work.

Donna Maeda, dean of the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College, shared others’ worries that low-income people and people of color won’t be recruited as volunteers; that bias is inherent, even among neighbors, and would need to be a topic of in-depth training; and that the program won’t interrupt a long history of criminalizing the behavior of certain communities unless it includes policing. 

Responding to some of the concerns, Brendmoen talked about the challenge public officials face, fielding simultaneous critiques of doing too much and too little. “I hope that perfect doesn’t get in the way of the good,” she said.

Maeda waited while the “talking piece” – an object used to indicate who has the floor – passed through six more people’s hands before she respectfully pushed back. Good enough for whom? she asked.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 07/03/2019 - 11:49 am.

    More BS and spending on useless staff people by the City. If you really want results how about a no tolerance policy to illegal gun possession. No plea bargaining. No probation. 5 years in the slammer without exception.

    That will either convince the gang bangers to leave their guns at home, or if they are too stupid to do that, get them off the street for a while.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 07/04/2019 - 10:51 pm.

      You need to sort out serious crime offenders vs nuisance/extremely annoying. I don’t see this track for the serious crimes; the offender needs to be in a place to own it and change it and the risk level needs to be low. I agree MN is notorious for umpteen chances. One of the problems is in prison, no one is mandated to engage in services to address the issues. So out they go and back often times they go. I also agree too many public officials look for the next glamorous idea with little evidence based outcomes to back it up. However in some cases, this may work if the offenders diverted to it are properly assessed and there are consequences if offenders do not follow the plan.

  2. Submitted by James Baker on 07/04/2019 - 03:25 pm.

    Whatever we can do to get youths on a more constructive path while sparing them from the harshness of the criminal justice system which often leaves them more cynical, quick to strike out and less able to get a good job or rent an apartment, the better off individuals and society will be. And there is some evidence (1) that the RJ approach can be effective in reducing further antisocial activity—not to mention saving considerable time, effort, money and other resources in the process.

    All of that acknowledged, RJ (or harsher criminal justice) remedies are downstream interventions for an upstream problem—namely, the large and increasing numbers of youth who have been shorted from a healthy trajectory from childhood. These are juveniles who have been let down by the system, mainly our system of k-12 schools. As a recent StarTribune report made graphically clear, the achievement gap in Minnesota—already nationally notorious—has further widened in the last 5 years (Minnesota’s Achievement Gap Is Getting Worse)(2). Chronically low achieving children become increasingly cynical youths who account for more academic behavior referrals and who are more prone to finding greater hope for acquiring some needed resources—or even social acceptance—outside of school or the home, often leading to illicit activities and eventually to the criminal justice system.

    Many schools, such as Minneapolis Public Schools have initiated “soft skills” training, such as social and emotional self-awareness and self-management training (SEL), and should be applauded and supported for these initiatives (as well as trying to limit suspensions and more equitably distribute them when necessary).

    Partnering with the schools, programs such as the St. Paul community initiative can help to create better supports for children/youth at risk and for those who have already offended, or are suspended from school, and are faced with some brand of justice accountability. These reciprocal relationships can also help in making programmatic adjustments for better training and effectiveness for program administrators.

    Schools can only do so much under current mandates, staff qualifications and funding levels: But they are now called upon to develop children and youths more comprehensively—and will need to be provided the resources to meet this challenge. Transformation is now needed to an adjusted brand and role in society to a more holistic format for guiding all students’ development toward readiness for productive participation in their post-k-12 endeavors: This might be referred to as, k-12 Training for Success.

    Academically, this of course begins with adequate literacy training which has unfortunately been a shortcoming of k-12 as many traditionally trained teachers have been reluctant to go all in on evidence based technical protocols (yes, the evidence is and long has been there for rigorous phonetic and phonemic awareness training) as a core part of a comprehensive literacy program in the early grades and as for as long as needed beyond. Every child should be rapidly approaching grade level proficiency by grade 3—with ongoing technical reading supports as needed. Teachers should not be faulted in failing to meet this challenge if they are not provided and/or expected to implement the rigorous training needed to do so.

    Complementing and reinforcing academics is the need to guide and support all students in forming harmonious, mutually supportive relations with classmates—a crucial part of human development that must begin with the earliest formal educational involvements and continue through the grades. Proficiently implemented, programs such as Tools of the Mind (3) can effectively launch this initiative in early formal education.

    Hard discussions on how and when technology can productively augment human teaching and development are needed. Disgruntled students x social media access is a large and growing problem calling for constructive discussions and appropriate restrictions woven into the school day.

    But the onus really falls to colleges of education to provide a more ready to roll human development workforce who are equipped for effectiveness, even in the so-called hard to staff schools—which thinking about it from a scholarly perspective present the most interesting intellectual challenges. In addition to more rigorous training, that may require a year of mentored actual school teaching for certification and a higher-bar certification exam to push ed schools for more rigor.

    More rigorously prepared teachers as academic/human development experts, of course, need to be paid commensurately as scholarly professionals and enabled to do their scholarly thing, with conventional accountability, but with more classroom autonomy which also assumes strong collegial coordination with peer teachers and administrative staff—all collaborating from a broad and deep scientifically rigorous knowledge base addressing healthy human development.

    While other nations that lead the k-12 field provide examples of what can be accomplished; nationally, we can look to Massachusetts (4) that has pushed their system of teacher preparation and student achievement to significantly higher levels, statewide.

    Much can be done, but we need to look holistically at society, at all of our populace as potential contributors and work back from there as to adjustments in policy and practice to help bring each individual to his/her fullest potential to contribute to our best outcomes. Ultimately, this calls upon the state legislature to perform their own rigorous and unbiased analyses, which can then lead the way with funding to support new rules and guidance for institutions that are charged with development of a positively responsive citizenry. Overcoming divisive tendencies in society that can separate and foment conflict among people with varying ideological, philosophical and/or religious beliefs—tinged by differing temperaments—is a major challenge and must begin in our k(or p)-12 institutions.

    Reciprocal partnerships between schools and neighborhood social service agencies that are all working from a similar cross-disciplinary knowledge base (that now exists), coming from a place of compassion, can help to reduce conflict in society while increasing social harmony.

    Continuing on the track we are on does not portend well for our society going forward.





    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/05/2019 - 03:05 pm.

      You can (and should) do all you can to improve schools and try to get kids on track. But the underlying problem is poverty. It explains the achievement gap. It explains disparities betwen districts. Any solution not geared at getting to the underlying problem is no solution at all.

      • Submitted by James Baker on 07/06/2019 - 11:33 am.

        Yep. Equitable distribution of resources is a key need for social justice and well-being in general in the US. We’re far behind other nations whose populations live better than ours.

        • Submitted by Toni Bergner on 07/07/2019 - 07:00 pm.

          But, don’t those resources need to be worked with in partnership? If the resources are available, and I believe there are many resources available to people in poverty, it seems that many people won’t work to use them and achieve a way out of their poverty. I think that many people confuse ‘hand outs’ with resources. ‘Hand outs’ don’t work ….. people in poverty need to be motivated to work their way, with resources, to escape their poverty.

      • Submitted by Miriam Segall on 07/06/2019 - 02:38 pm.

        Pat Terry’s comment is spot on. There is an enormous body of research showing the physiological and psychological damage caused by the stresses of poverty and racism on both parents and children, prenatally and in the first years of the child’s life before any school intervention. I don’t understand why we expect our schools to fix all the problems that are caused by our social structures, and condemn the schools when they (predictably) frequently can’t do so. Every ameliorative effort helps, of course, but we have to recognize that their effectiveness is going to be limited.

    • Submitted by Mike Schumann on 07/06/2019 - 09:23 am.

      Not a single mention of the roll of bad or non-existent parenting, which is the single most significant problem we have. Why is no one questioning why MN is at the bottom of the national outcomes list when we are the most bleeding heart state in the country? Maybe that’s part of the problem.

      • Submitted by Toni Bergner on 07/07/2019 - 07:03 pm.

        I certainly agree with you …. the crux of the problem is so many children who are born into families who are not ready / don’t have the ability to / aren’t motivated to raise them.

  3. Submitted by William Duncan on 07/10/2019 - 09:08 am.

    Many of America’s ills can be traced to a collapse in a sense of community. I think this is a great idea; anything that we can contribute to rebuild a sense of community is a more healthy response than prison and probation, which is mostly passing on responsibility to a system that breeds sadism and pathology.

    Also I agree that turning America’s economy from productive to “service”, while embracing corporatism and monopoly, has reduced wages and benefits for working people, which has exacerbated criminality and despair leading to widespread drug addiction. Prison again in this context is just more pathology.

  4. Submitted by Jim Young on 07/16/2019 - 09:23 am.

    Interesting that this article doesn’t mention the restorative justice program that’s been going for years just across the river in Minneapolis. Our neighborhood (Seward) has been doing this with pretty good buy in from residents, businesses, the courts and police. I haven’t seen followup research that attempts to measure it’s effectiveness but from an on the ground perspective, it seems like it is a better alternative for everyone involved.

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