Community-led alternative to criminal justice resolves conflict, fosters community and protects youth


Sometimes it takes a village to stop a youth from having a criminal record.

“Two friends, [ages]17 or 18, got into a fight over a girl,” explains the Reverend Donna L. Jones, 64, founding pastor of the Cookman Beloved Community Baptist Church in West Philadelphia.

“One guy hit the other with a pistol,” says Jones, a licensed restorative justice practitioner. “That’s a felony offense.” But instead of calling the police, neighbors at the scene contacted Jones, aware that she leads restorative healing circles to handle conflict.

The circle included the two youths, support people chosen by them, family members, neighbors and Jones. At first, the young men balked at taking part for fear of being arrested, but the reverend and her church staff persuaded them to participate.

children sitting in desks in a circle in a classroom
Healing circles like this one at a Philadelphia-area school can be places where members are open with others, often sharing or working through emotions. Photograph courtesy of Ronnie Andren

“Everyone had a chance to speak without interruption,” she says of the meetings, the first of which lasted two and a half hours, a usual range. After four restorative circles that included people impacted by the fight, the young man who struck out with the gun agreed to buy new sneakers for the youth he’d hit because of blood stains from the fight on his old sneakers. He also agreed to pay $50 for the other youth’s pain.

During the circles, the need to address housing security for one youth and truancy issues for both came to light.

“We provided transitional housing through a church program for homeless adolescents,” Jones says, noting that circles help to work out underlying issues. “In addition, the contract or plan of action developed during the circles called for the youths to attend school all day, every day.”

In the end, the young men resumed their friendship, graduated from high school and had no criminal record limiting their future.

“I’ve led hundreds of healing circles over 15 years,” Jones says. “Only once did participants back out of their contract. When that happens, civil authorities may step in.”

In another case, Jones led an impromptu circle when three boys around age 13 snatched a bag of potato chips from a street vendor’s truck. The vendor brought the boys to the church.

“After everyone had a chance to talk, the vendor asked the boys to empty their pockets,” she says. “All told, they had $13, which the vendor took as reparation, pointing out that the chips were far less. The boys never stole anything again.”

This seemingly new approach to conflict resolution has old roots, notes Barbie Fischer, 36, of Germantown. Fischer is the executive director of Restorative Encounters, a nonprofit association of “restorative justice professionals offering resources and training in restorative practices,” including healing circles.

“In this country, restorative practices began in the ’70s in Indiana, but they represent an ancient approach,” says Fischer, who spent five years learning and working with the Acholi people of Uganda.

“Restorative justice often has a more satisfying outcome [than courtroom proceedings] for those who’ve been harmed or caused harm because it focuses on meeting people’s needs,” says Fischer, who earned a master’s degree in conflict transformation and peace building from Eastern Mennonite University. “Restorative justice takes a holistic approach. We’re looking at all the people involved and all their needs. It gives everyone concerned a chance to be heard. Circles may reduce gun violence. If you have a voice, you don’t need a gun to make a statement.”

Healing circles also help to satisfy a basic hunger. “As human beings, we have a huge need to be known, to be acknowledged,” Fischer says. “Circles do that.”

Restorative circles also require certain things from participants, points out Craig Adamson, Ph.D., 48, provost of the International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP) in Bethlehem, and the author of “Intentional Classroom Engagement,” a just-published workbook that guides teachers in using restorative techniques in school.

“They require honesty and listening,” Adamson says. “They’re tough conversations, but they lead to mutual understanding. That’s why they’re gaining ground locally and globally.”

The number of Philadelphia graduates from IIRP, which grants a graduate certificate in restorative practices, is steadily rising, he notes.

In fact, Philadelphia has taken steps toward becoming a more restorative city—one that addresses problems in systems, agencies and neighborhoods—using approaches that include healing circles.

Kevin Bethel, 57, head of school safety for the School District of Philadelphia, has started an initiative where students who have committed low-level offenses, such as fighting in school, can enter a diversion program instead of being arrested.

“The number of students arrested annually has dropped from 1,600 to 384,” he says. “It helps stem the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Students in the program may attend youth court or restorative circles led by their peers.

In another hopeful move, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has a restorative justice facilitator on staff.

“It’s part of his larger criminal justice reform,” says Jody Dodd, 64, Krasner’s facilitator. “We plan to start with 25 juvenile cases in the first year, double that in the second year, and so on.”

The young people must meet certain criteria, such as taking responsibility for what they’ve done and not having other cases pending.

“Everyone sits down together in the circle,” Dodd says. “Victims tell how the crime affected them. It humanizes what happened and builds empathy.”

Meanwhile, Reverend Jones, as the executive director of the Metropolitan Christian Council of Philadelphia, aims to teach restorative practices to as many people as possible.

“We offer training to neighbors, volunteers, agencies and others throughout the city,” she says. “We request a donation, but we provide the six-hour training free of charge to encourage everyone to take it, regardless of their ability to pay.”

Jones sees wide implications. “If we’re trained to handle conflict, we don’t have to dial 9-1-1,” she says. “People call the police because they don’t know what else to do. But when enough of us can lead circles, the police presence in our neighborhood will shrink.”

Neighbors will begin using circles in other instances, she believes. “Say, a first-generation student is going to college. People could circle up to think of ways to ensure that student’s success.”

“Restorative c
ircles strengthen our communities,” she says. “Together we can do this.”

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