In Small Farming Town, Making a Case for Restorative Justice

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John Swenning believes adults involved in the Reedley Peace Building Initiative have to be accountable to students. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

When Yazmin Ortiz came inside from cross-country practice last fall, she saw an open locker. Inside was a pricey designer backpack that one of her classmates owned.

“There was nobody [around] and I saw her bag,” says the Reedley High School senior. “I don’t know what I was thinking that made me turn around to grab her backpack.”

Yazmin kept it at home for months. Then, at the beginning of January, she wore it to school. The owner called her out. Soon they were both in the office.

Yazmin knew she was going to get in trouble, but she just wanted a way out. “I just started denying everything,” she says.

But finally, Yazmin told her parents what she had done. She felt guilty because her parents had worked hard to make her life better than theirs. They didn’t even get to finish middle school back in Mexico.

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Yazmin agreed to return the backpack. The other kid’s mother wanted to press charges. But Yazmin got lucky; the girl chose restorative justice.

“I had to sit in a conference room with her parents and my parents,” says Yazmin. “And sitting in there was, it was very difficult. I couldn’t even look them in the eye because I felt really ashamed of what I did.”

Accountability is a key part of restorative justice, a process where the offender apologizes to the victim through mediation. Yazmin not only had to admit she took the backpack, but she also had to repeat out loud the other girl’s version of the story. That’s a key part of the process, to make sure the victim is heard.

She also had to do 30 hours of community service. Her job? Volunteering at a local thrift store run by the Mennonites. It wasn’t a random assignment. The whole restorative justice program started in the Fresno County town because of a global relief organization there, the West Coast Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).

General Grant Middle School in Reedley also uses restorative justice. A mediator talks with kids and parents about a vandalism case.
General Grant Middle School in Reedley also uses restorative justice. A mediator talks with kids and parents about a vandalism case. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

The MCC is known for its restorative justice work in other countries. Seven years, ago, when Reedley saw a spike in the homicide rate and more kids joining gangs, the West Coast MCC introduced the idea of restorative justice to the police department and the school district. School and police officials were so worried about skyrocketing expulsion and suspension rates and kids getting into trouble that they decided to give it a try.

Its more formal name is the Reedley Peace Building Initiative. It’s specifically for kids who have committed minor crimes, misdemeanors like vandalism, fighting or stealing.

“We’re not trying to create a whole new justice system. This is just in support of what we have,” says John Swenning, a former cop. He works for the West Coast MCC and he’s the town’s go-to guy for restorative justice.

Trained volunteers from the community mediate the cases. There are more than 70 volunteers who have signed up. Some of the most engaged volunteers come from Reedley’s First Mennonite Church and the Reedley Peace Center, which has its meetings on church grounds.

Pastor Steve Penner says the idea of restorative justice is embedded in the church’s theology.  “And we’re sort of naturally critics of the criminal justice system as it is and its retributive measures,” he says.

The process keeps kids out of that system, says Penner. It means no court dates, no criminal record.

“This whole restorative justice thing in Reedley has been good for us as peace people and police to find some common ground to work together because none of us want bad things to happen to youth and others in our community.”

It’s that common ground that makes Reedley’s program successful, says Lt. Marc Ediger of the Reedley Police Department. “This is the perfect opportunity, I think, for the community to get involved and actually sit across the table from offenders and victims of crime so it’s not just the police department,” he says.

When he first heard about the program, he was worried it could be soft on crime. “But it’s not,” he says. “It’s taking ownership of what you’ve done.”

Unlike criminal court cases that must be tried in Fresno, restorative justice cases never leave Reedley.

“When we get a case, our goal is to have it in a mediator’s hands in 10 to 15 days,” says Ediger. “That’s the only system it visits at that point. That’s what’s really unique about it. It’s our own subsystem."

Mary Ann Carousso, administrator of student services for the Kings Canyon Unified School District, originally thought the idea was nuts.

“ I thought, ‘Are you crazy?’ This is a massive undertaking,” she says. “I couldn’t fathom how we were going to be able to rely on volunteers. Modern life is busy and fast-paced.”

The self-described “queen of discipline” also wondered whether restorative justice would be too soft on crime. But now she thinks the opposite. “You’re getting a lot more discipline with restorative justice: mediation, community service.”

And kids like Yazmin still get suspended, despite the fact that critics of the program say schools aren’t disciplining kids enough.

“We want to be consistent,” Swenning says. “We’ve found that it really helps the whole process that the rules of the school are still followed. It’s just after this suspension, we’re giving them the opportunity to make this right, to do something that’s right, to make changes in their lives.”

And suspensions have gone way down. Swenning is convinced it’s because kids are learning. About 260 kids have gone through Reedley’s program. Only about 9 percent have committed another crime.

Yazmin Ortiz would agree with Carousso and Swenning. She says the hardest part of the whole restorative justice process was writing a letter of apology. In fact, her first effort failed miserably. She accused the girl of having a nasty attitude.

“I wasn’t really nice in that letter because I was really angry,” Ortiz says. “It was a bad letter. I explained to her that it was her fault I took her bag!”

So she rewrote the letter. She knows she caught a break; she could have been arrested or ended up with a criminal record.  The blame ultimately falls on her, she says, and she won’t steal again, even if there is a temptation.

“A lot of these kids don’t know what accountability is, being responsible for their actions,” says Swenning. “There have been many cases where the student has never told the parents exactly what’s going on until they get into mediation.”

Mennonites first came to Reedley in the early 1900s. The First Mennonite Church of Reedley was their first meeting house.
Mennonites first came to Reedley in the early 1900s. The First Mennonite Church of Reedley was their first meeting house.

The Reedley Peace Building Initiative isn’t just about the offenders. Victims are expected to learn something, too. And it can get complicated.

Take Guillermo Cruz.  Last fall, a kid at school jumped him, beat him up. Cruz had never even met him.

“I think he was trying to like impress his friends or something,” says Cruz. “After he like punched me, I was mad.”

His gut feeling was to retaliate, but then Swenning suggested mediation. So he took a chance.

At first, it didn’t go well.

Guillermo didn’t think the other kid was being honest. But Guillermo, Swenning and the parents of both boys called him on it. Eventually, the kid relented.

“Like we both talked with each other. He even like gave me a letter to apologize,” he says. It was a weird experience, he adds, because he’d never gotten an apology from someone after a fight.

The other boy declined being interviewed for this story. He was expelled. But because of restorative justice, he had the chance to come back to Reedley High. Guillermo says things aren’t perfect between them, but at least they’re OK.  They haven’t gotten into a fight.

And Guillermo knows it could have escalated into something really violent. He’s grown up around a gang in his neighborhood. Some of his friends have been shot or are in prison.

But, he says, he really doesn’t want his life to go that way, and restorative justice has given him a different perspective.

“I don’t want to be in prison for like the rest of my life,” Guillermo says. “I’d rather be like good.”

But the temptations are still there. A couple weeks ago, Guillermo got caught up in a group fight at a park.

Still, John Swenning and others say they’ll be watching out for him, pushing him to go to community college in the fall. Adults involved in the program also have to be accountable, says Swenning. Guillermo’s a good kid, he says. He just needs some added support.

It’s that kind of commitment that has put Reedley’s program on the map -- so much so that other cities, big and small, are now trying to emulate it.