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

The program will rely on neighbors volunteering to work through cases, and their job isn’t to decide guilt or innocence but to humanize the criminal justice process.  

Tamara Mattison
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.
MinnPost photo by Taryn Phaneuf

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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.