The HBO series The Wire vividly depicts the crime, corruption, and immorality of the war on drugs in Baltimore. While accurate and compelling, there is a much more hopeful story to be told about the city. It is the story of 9,000 Baltimore residents who have safely resolved their own crimes and conflicts, within their own neighborhoods, using something called “community conferencing.”
Community conferencing is an effective community justice process that functions as an alternative to an overburdened and costly justice system. It’s winning praise from both victims and offenders, while saving the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.
Most people are aware that our criminal justice system is broken. For example:
- The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, yet possesses 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
- One in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail, or on supervised release.
- The number of incarcerated drug offenders has soared 1,200 percent since 1980, up from 41,000 to 500,000 in 2008.
- Sixty percent of offenders are arrested for nonviolent offensives, many driven by mental illness or drug addiction.
- We now arrest more and more children, creating what is commonly known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Jim Webb (D-Virginia) is one of the few U.S. senators who is working for criminal justice reform, declaring that our current system is neither fair nor effective. He believes the system favors white, wealthy people. And it is not making our neighborhoods any safer: the focus on nonviolent offenders distracts law enforcement from pursuing the drug cartels and the approximately 1 million gang members who are responsible for unprecedented levels of violence.
The thing is, we have social technologies that can hold nonviolent offenders accountable and reduce recidivism and, in doing so, allow law enforcement to focus resources on bringing violent offenders and career criminals to justice. These programs work better at less cost. But they are seriously underfunded.
Community conferencing is one such social technology that is effective with many kinds of incidents, including misdemeanors and felony offenses. The community conferencing process is deceptively simple. A trained, neutral facilitator brings together victims, offenders, and their families to talk about three things: 1) what happened, 2) how people have been affected by what happened, and 3) what can be done to repair the harm and prevent it from happening again.
Take, for example, a recent case referred to the Community Conferencing Center from the Office of State’s Attorneys: Two 15-year-old boys stole a car in downtown Baltimore. The owner was a man who lived 50 miles away in an affluent neighborhood, but he welcomed the opportunity to meet directly with the boys and their families.
During the conference, he was especially moved by the concern, love, and firmness of one boy’s grandfather, a local pastor. The grandfather immediately apologized to the car owner, and then said to his grandson, “You know, your grandmother and I did not expect to be raising children at this time in our lives and it’s not easy. And we did not raise you to behave like this and we are incredibly disappointed by your actions.” The boys both apologized. The car owner accepted their apologies and asked that they pay his insurance deductible. The boys agreed, but they had no money and no job prospects, so the grandfather offered to hire the boys at his church, and they calculated how long it would take them to earn enough money to pay off the deductible. Then something surprising happened. The grandson said to the car owner, “I’m happy to pay you, but I don’t want to just give the money to the facilitator to give to you, because I want to be able to shake your hand and give it to you myself.”
On the date designated in their written agreement, the car owner came back to Baltimore to collect the money. During that meeting, the boys gave him the check, and they all shook hands and hugged. And before the car owner left the room, he turned to the grandfather, thanked him, and donated the money to the grandfather’s church.
In Baltimore alone, over 9,000 residents have safely and effectively resolved their own crimes and conflicts using community conferencing. Over 95 percent of the community conferences result in the participants coming up with their own, effective agreement.
The most common types of crimes diverted to community conferencing include second-degree assault, shoplifting, breaking and entering, and auto theft. Schools also often choose to use community conferencing rather than suspension or arrest to address fights among students, student-teacher conflicts, harassment, bullying, and theft.
Young offenders, typically seven to 19 years old, who participate in a community conference are 60 percent less likely to reoffend than those who go through the juvenile justice system. And this is all at one-tenth the cost of court.
The agreements, which participants both create and abide by, are the most inspiring and important part of community conferencing. First, in a community conference in which victims request monetary reparations, they are paid over 90 percent of the time, in contrast to the less than 10 percent monetary reparation rate in the courts. But, often, victims choose to forgo monetary reparation once they sit through a community conference, because they have a chance to learn about the struggles the young offender and his or her family are experiencing. More often than not, victims will volunteer to assist offenders as part of the agreement—whether it is by finding or giving them a job, agreeing to be a mentor, or providing them with a positive activity. One victim offered to provide scuba lessons to the young man who stole her scooter. Another victim actually said he’d pay for the young offender’s college, if he graduated from high school.
Remarkable community-building efforts have also arisen from community conferencing agreements. One neighborhood that had called the police for years to handle disruptive kids in their streets ended up creating a football league out of their community conference. That league is run by 40 adult volunteers from the neighborhood and is now in its tenth season. (Parts of this conference can be seen in a video at www.communityconferencing.org.)
People often wonder why victims would want to participate in this process. The simple answer is that every person wants a chance to tell his story. The virulent racist who is causing havoc for his neighbors wants an opportunity to have a voice. Similarly, the woman whose car was stolen and whose child was left for two hours at her school without anyone to pick her up wants a chance to say how difficult that experience was. And they want a say in deciding what will be done to make it right; they want to be part of the justice process.
So why is community conferencing so successful? If there is a secret to its success, it has to do with our emotions. Community conferences allow—and even encourage—participants to express how they feel, something that our culture seems to discourage. It’s messy stuff, but our emotions motivate us more than our thoughts do. Just think…if someone gives a group a great intellectual solution to their problem, and they still walk out of the room hating each other, that solution will have no chance. What conferences do, by design, is provide a space for the transformation of the emotions that generate conflict (such as anger, fear, and disgust) into the emotions that generate cooperation (such as empathy, concern, and joy). This design is based on something called affect theory, developed by psychologist Silvan Tomkins. Nobel Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyui put it this way: “Violence is not the problem; hate is the problem.” In order for people to feel differently about a crime or conflict, they need to be able to address the incident on an emotional level before they can move forward. Community conferences provide a space and structure for people to do just that.
Though conferencing programs exist in several places across the country, the Community Conferencing Center is one of the only programs of its kind working in a large American inner city. It is also one of the largest conferencing programs in the United States. Not every “alternative” program is equally successful. These community-based approaches to criminal justice require a highly effective staff to implement them. And it takes time to get citizens to trust an alternative to court.
This is not a liberal or conservative issue. Everyone wants safe communities and everyone knows that what we’re doing now is not getting the outcomes we deserve. In particular, juvenile justice reform needs to take “graduated sanctions” seriously. We currently have a binary system, where nothing happens to young offenders until they do something really bad, and then we put them in a costly, “deep-end” system that sucks up 90 percent of the entire justice budget. We can create a better justice system if we spend our state and federal criminal justice dollars with greater attention to accountability, outcomes, and cost.
The money is there. In Maryland, we are fortunate and grateful to have a state judiciary that puts its money into Alternative Dispute Resolution, which is becoming more institutionalized each year. As a nation, we should move to revamp our current system and spend our funds on the approaches that get better outcomes at less cost. Perhaps then we might finally fulfill an ideal set forth in our Constitution—to create justice that is truly by and for the people.
The author would like to thank all of the staff at the Community Conferencing Center for making it possible for this work to have such a broad and continuing impact on individuals and criminal justice reform. She would also like to acknowledge the courage of all 9,000 Baltimore residents who were willing to actively engage in a justice process that is as risky as it is empowering and their compassion and creativity in deciding how to take better care of each other in the wake of crime.