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Talking Cure

Community Conferencing Center uses restorative justice techniques to deal with crime in Baltimore

Jefferson Jackson Steele
(from left) Community Conferencing Center Program Director David Williams, Executive Director Lauren Abramson, and facilitator Misty Fae take part in a planning meeting.

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 5/27/2009

Darren has a problem.

He's in middle school--a tough time for a lot of kids to begin with--and due to some family problems, he recently found himself living in a group home in Baltimore City. He likes to dress well and look good when he goes to school, but he doesn't have many clothes because most of his stuff is still in his old room at home. Meanwhile, he's stuck living in a strange place with other kids who also have family troubles. He's angry and a little bit lonely. He's made some friends, but he's been caught several times by the group-home staff taking things that didn't belong to him. He says he doesn't mean to do it, and he knows stealing is wrong. But sometimes he just can't help himself.

Ms. LaRoux has a problem, too.

She is a foster parent who takes in kids like Darren to live in her home while their family problems are being worked out. She's an experienced foster mom who's had lots of kids come to stay with her, and she recently heard that Darren was going to need a foster home soon. She invited him to come to spend some time at her house, so she could get to know him, and after a recent visit, she was upset to learn that he had taken some items without asking when he left--nothing big, she says, but that's not the point. The point is, stealing is wrong, and now she doesn't think she can trust Darren enough to have him come live with her family.

At this point, Ms. LaRoux could simply tell Darren's social workers that it just won't work out, that she doesn't want him in her home. She could probably even file a report with the police for the theft, which could result in Darren being handed over to the juvenile court system to answer for what he did.

But despite Ms. LaRoux's disappointment, both she and Darren's social workers knew that neither a bad report nor juvenile court was going to solve anything or address the child's stealing problem in a way that made him recognize how his actions hurt other people.

So on a recent chilly afternoon in East Baltimore, LaRoux sits in a circle of chairs with Darren, two social workers, and one of her current foster sons, who is here today because some of the items Darren took from LaRoux's home were his.

They have assembled for what's called a community conference, a conflict-resolution strategy (or, in the lingo of those who practice it, a "conflict transformation" strategy) that will help each of the parties in the room discuss what happened, why it happened, and what everyone would like to see happen to resolve the problem. Once everyone comes to a mutual decision about how the problem should be resolved, everyone in the room signs an "agreement," which outlines the things participants will to do to make amends for the situation that brought them to the conference in the first place. Sometimes, the agreements are simple--no TV for a month for a kid who gets into trouble or someone agrees to return stolen goods--but sometimes they can be pretty complex. And occasionally, touching.

"There was a case I did where I think a boy had stolen a phone and a wallet out of a man's car," says Lauren Abramson, founder and executive director of the Baltimore Community Conferencing Center. "The man was so upset when it started out, but by the end of the conference, the man said to the boy that if he finished high school, he would pay for his college. Imagine that--just saying in a circle of people to a 14-year-old boy, 'I'm interested in what's going to happen to you and I care about you and I'm willing to invest in your future.'"

The conferencing process is similar to mediation, a common form of alternative dispute resolution in which parties involved in a conflict come together to reach an agreement on how to resolve the issue, rather than having an outside party (such as a social worker or a judge) impose a resolution on them. But in conferencing, instead of involving just the parties directly involved in a conflict, a community conference invites all parties who feel aggrieved by a situation to take part--in essence, a "community" of people hurt by the actions of another. And instead of encouraging people to deal with a conflict in a strictly rational way, a key component of community conferencing is emotion--in fact, each participant is encouraged to share his or her emotions about the incident that the conference addresses, and each victim of a hurtful behavior is asked to tell the person who hurt them, directly, how the situation made them feel.

Sometimes it can get a little tense. But that's part of what makes community conferencing so useful and successful, according to Abramson. In a world where people are encouraged to bottle up their feelings, she says, the need to express emotion is squashed. In a community conference, people have the opportunity to express their emotions and talk about them openly in a safe and productive environment.

"As human beings, it's important for us to do this," Abramson says, citing the work of personality theorist and psychologist Silvan Tomkins, who asserted that human beings are biologically motivated by emotion. "Conflict is about being angry or disgusted by each other, or being afraid of each other. They're negative emotions, but they're not good or bad. They are just part of our biology.

"I think what conferencing does is it gives people a chance to give voice to it. I worked in behavioral medicine with people who were putting a lid on emotions all the time and ending up with job problems and intestinal problems and blood-pressure problems. You name it. It's because we are not paying attention to our biology. What I think conferencing really does on a biological level is to allow people to give voice to what they are experiencing and understand each other a little better and allow those negative emotions to shift into something better."

It's a powerful tool, according to Abramson, which helps bring closure to relatively simple cases, such as the one involving Darren and Ms. LaRoux, and also to far more complex and sensitive matters--for instance, the Community Conferencing Center has facilitated conferences in which the families of murder victims are given the opportunity to confront the individual who killed their loved one. (A story that details the account of a Baltimore man named Bernard Williams, who used the Community Conferencing Center to facilitate a meeting with his son's killer, was featured in the March 23 Washington Post Magazine.) No matter the nature of the conflict, Abramson says, the purpose of the community conference is the same.

"The goal is for people to learn to get some sense of healing and be able to learn from and understand each other better," she says, "in the hopes of building better relationships and a better sense of community." 

 

In 1998, aided in part by a grant from the Open Society Institute, Abramson founded the nonprofit Community Conferencing Center of Baltimore, one of a small number of organizations in the United States offering community conferences in an inner-city environment at little or no cost to participants. The Baltimore Police Department, the city State's Attorney's Office, the Baltimore City School Police, and the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services all work with the Community Conferencing Center to identify cases--particularly those involving juvenile offenders--that can be diverted from the traditional criminal-justice system to be handled in the community-conference setting.

The cases could involve anything from second-degree assault to auto theft to simple neighborhood complaints. To date, the center estimates that it has worked with more than 7,000 young offenders in Baltimore to help them resolve their crimes and conflicts in the community without sending them through the courts. It's a "restorative" or "community" justice approach to crime that's becoming more popular in America as prisons and courtrooms become more crowded and the cost of prosecuting criminal cases, some of which are dismissed once they get before a judge, soars. Community conferencing removes cases from the traditional system--no public defenders are needed, valuable court time isn't wasted on cases that would be dismissed anyway, and the Community Conferencing Center provides the follow-up to make sure that the participants in a conference are living up to their agreement.

Diverting cases from courtrooms back to the community saves taxpayers money, advocates point out, because it puts less burden on the already overtaxed criminal justice system; it helps victims of crime heal because it gives them a chance to confront the person who harmed them; and according to Abramson and other proponents, it strengthens communities by showing them that they have the power to resolve their own problems without the intervention of police or officials.

"It's not a fad," says Barbara Babb, associate professor of law and director of the Center for Families, Children, and the Courts for the University of Baltimore School of Law, of the growing popularity of restorative-justice techniques. "I think it has become much more popular over the years. There are now restorative-justice centers affiliated with universities. I think it's a concept that has real appeal because it offers opportunities to both victims and [offenders]. It's a more balanced concept."

And there's also evidence that it works.

The Community Conferencing Center, Abramson says, has a roughly 95 percent success rate for cases that come through its doors, which means that in the vast majority of cases it handles, participants do come to an agreeable resolution by the time a conference concludes. The center also says that for juveniles who go through the process, the recidivism rate is 60 percent lower than it is for kids who go through the traditional juvenile-courts system.

There aren't a lot of formal studies available in the United States on how programs like community conferencing impact crime; in fact, most of the studies that do exist on the topic come from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or the United Kingdom--places where restorative-justice and community conferencing have a longer track record. But the studies that do exist point to a surprising success rate when appropriate cases are diverted to alternative forms of resolution.

According to one U.S.-based study conducted by Mark Umbreit, founding director of the Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking and the National Restorative Justice Training Institute (both in Minnesota), published in 1994, mediation-type programs produced positive results in a review of 3,142 cases reviewed over a two-and-a-half-year period. Victims who met with offenders in the presence of trained mediators, the study found, were more likely to be satisfied with the justice system than those who went through the "normal" court process. Further, victims who worked through a mediated session with an offender were "significantly less upset about the crime and less fearful of being re-victimized by the same offender," and offenders who went through the mediation process were far more likely to successfully complete their restitution obligation agreed upon in the session than those offenders who were ordered to complete restitution by a court.

Finally, and probably most importantly, Umbreit's study found that fewer offenders who participated in an offender-victim mediation meeting were likely to re-offend. The study found that the recidivism rate for juveniles was 18 percent of those who went through a mediation process, whereas it was 27 percent for those who did not. For those who did re-offend, Umbreit found, "they also tended to commit crimes that were less serious" than the crime for which they were sent to mediation. "Such a finding is consistent with recidivism studies related to other community-justice alternative programs," Umbreit found.

And cities like Baltimore report that they are experiencing success with restorative-justice programs, too. According to Sheryl Goldstein, director of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, the city has been working with Community Conferencing, and another restorative-justice program, called Teen Court, to address cases involving juvenile offenders. Though Goldstein did not have hard data to offer, she said that thus far the city has been pleased with the results of working with the Community Conferencing Center and Teen Court, and it plans to increase the number of cases it sends to those programs.

"Restorative justice models offer an opportunity for young people to be accountable for their actions and also sort of make right what was wrong, so there is a restoration to the community," Goldstein says. "You know, Mayor [Sheila] Dixon, one of her approaches to criminal justice involves community engagement--whether the accountability component or just the notion of making the community whole. . . . So we have been working to divert more young people to community conferencing." 

 

The criminal-justice community in Baltimore City has not always been so receptive, Abramson notes. A psychologist and part-time assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, she first tried to bring the concept to the city in 1995. She had attended a conference in Philadelphia, where David Moore, an Australian facilitator and trainer in constructive communications strategies, presented a workshop on community conferencing, which was being used in Australian schools to resolve student conflicts.

"It took a few years of tilling the earth," she says, before she was really able to plant the idea in Baltimore City. In 1998, she held the first community conferencing facilitator-training session here, in conjunction with the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention. The office then issued funding to four communities in Baltimore City to create their own community conferencing programs. Unfortunately, the program did not really thrive--without a main office to take referrals, offer training, and ensure that adequate oversight was in place to make sure the process was functioning properly, the program struggled.

So Abramson struck out on her own and applied for an Open Society Institute Community Fellowship. The Open Society Institute in Baltimore offers seed money to applicants who want to apply their education and professional experience to serve disadvantaged communities. Abramson used the fellowship to develop the Community Conferencing Center. The first few years, she says, referrals were just "dribbling in."

"It took persistence, persistence, persistence," she says of her efforts to draw attention to the program and get people to take it seriously. "I think it took six years before we really were starting to get some roots. By 2004, it finally started to feel like things were kicking in."

Now, the center has a staff of six people and has trained roughly 500 people in the city in community-conferencing facilitation; Abramson and her staff have had success working not just on juvenile and criminal cases, but also in assisting ex-offenders on their re-entry to the communities they left when they went to prison, helping neighborhoods resolve ongoing disagreements between neighbors, and helping school systems come up with alternative solutions to school suspensions and arrests for problem students.

"One of the things about our program that's different is that we're not just in schools, we're not just in the criminal justice system, we're not just with juveniles," Abramson says. "It's with neighborhoods, it's with serious crimes, it's with a lot of different organizations. We've applied the process in a lot of different ways."

A local asset-protection division of the discount store Target, for instance, is using community conferencing to address shoplifting in some of its stores. Tyree Huddleston III, an asset protection specialist who works for Target in Baltimore, says the company has diverted multiple cases to conferencing rather than the court system because, in many cases, it's more effective--particularly when it comes to working with young people.

"I've been in the field for quite some time, working in Baltimore City, and working with juveniles," Huddleston says. "I've seen the process that the court system puts them through in the aftermath of dealing with a [theft] situation. In the judiciary system, in some cases, the kids are not made accountable for their actions. [Community conferencing] makes them understand the complexity of it, makes them see how everybody is affected by their actions. . . . I would say that 80 to 90 percent of my cases are juveniles, and community conferencing gets to them in ways that the courts or their parents cannot."

The Community Conferencing Center has also expanded its services to other counties in the Baltimore metropolitan region seeking help in establishing restorative justice programs. It now serves as a training and technical assistance hub for newer community conferencing programs that are in place in Baltimore, Carroll, Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Frederick, and Montgomery counties.  

 

David Williams, a facilitator from the Community Conferencing Center of Baltimore, begins Darren's community conference by introducing everyone in the room. He then starts to ask some questions, beginning with Darren.

"Darren, could you start by telling us what happened?"

Darren, reticent and shy at first, admits that he took some items, but is not inclined to say much more. Williams, though, is used to dealing with kids, and he keeps asking questions that require more than yes or no answers: What were you feeling? What were you thinking? Who do you think was affected by your actions? How did your actions affect them?

Once Darren acknowledges that he hurt his potential foster mom and brother, Williams moves on and asks each person in the room--from social worker to foster brother--to tell Darren and the group how they were injured by the situation, how they feel about it, and what they would like to see happen as a result of today's discussion.

It's a difficult conversation for everybody, but after each participant confronts the awkward moment and moves past it, you can almost see the tension dissipate--fidgeting stops, people start making eye contact with one another, they smile at each other. They even joke around a little.

Williams asks them: "What do you want to see happen as a result of this meeting today?"

They ponder the question for a bit, and LaRoux says that after today's meeting, she'd still like to give Darren a chance to move into her home. But he's got to be willing to earn back her trust by allowing her to search his bag whenever she asks; he's got to be willing to communicate with her and ask when he wants to use something that doesn't belong to him. He's got to be willing to try to resist the urge to take things that aren't his, and accept responsibility for his actions if he slips up. If, over time, he's proven to be trustworthy, he'll earn more privileges--and fewer bag searches. All parties in the room, including Darren, are willing to sign off on that agreement.

Over the next couple of months, representatives of the Community Conferencing Center will follow up with LaRoux and Darren's social workers to see if things are working out and everyone is abiding by the agreement. If things are going well, the case will be considered resolved and it will be closed. Darren won't have a juvenile record, as he would if the police were involved and he had to go to court. And Ms. LaRoux doesn't have to feel like she turned her back on Darren.

By the end of the conference, everyone seems surprised by the simplicity of the process--and pleased with the agreement they have reached as a result of the conference.

"This was my first time doing this," says one of the social workers after the conference was over. "And it was really a great opportunity and a really good experience. I think they show you that you can solve these kinds of things on your own. You don't need the police or anyone else to tell you what to do."

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