REEDLEY – Since 2011, the Reedley Peace Building Initiative has used restorative justice to address and cut down on juvenile criminal behavior, as well as keep young people out of the criminal justice system.
A point of pride for its leaders, the initiative has an average recidivism rate of 5%, meaning that of the juvenile offenders who participate, 95% do not commit another criminal offense and only 5% re-offend. For restorative justice to work, the right people and the right processes need to be in place, which is the case in Reedley, Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp said.
“They’re a model for the nation, and they’ve had a lot of other cities come and try to learn from them,” Smittcamp said. “It really is the gold standard for many programs, and they do it well, efficiently and effectively.”
Restorative justice is a system or practice used to address crime in a way that ultimately strengthens relationships within a community when there is both accountability for the offender and resolution for the victim. Smittcamp said that when done properly, restorative justice keeps people and cases out of the criminal justice system that don’t necessarily need to be there.
Through a partnership between the city, Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), the Reedley Police Department (RPD) and Community Youth Ministries (CYM), the Reedley Peace Building Initiative (RPBI) offers local students the chance to reflect on their actions, understand the root causes of their behavior and make things right with the victims of their crime.
HOW IT WORKS
When a student, typically under the age of 18, commits a minor criminal offense or breaks the KCUSD Education Code, their case is evaluated to see if it is suitable for the restorative justice program. If it meets the criteria, it is referred to KCUSD restorative justice program coordinators John Swenning and Jake Harder.
RPBI deals with cases involving drugs or alcohol, assault, theft, vandalism, bullying and threats, and the students involved must be deemed “good candidates” for the program. A good candidate is typically an offender who is willing to admit what they’ve done, who feels remorseful, understands that they’ve caused harm and is looking to make things right.
Everything that happens in the program is pre-arrest, allowing juveniles to stay out of the justice system so long as they follow through with the program requirements, Cmdr. Marc Ediger with RPD said. Participation in the restorative justice process is up to both the offender and the victim; offenders are given the choice to go through with the program or have the case filed with the court system.
Students still serve out suspension time, or whatever consequence the school district determines is appropriate for the offense, but the program allows them to get right back into school and make things right in a timely manner.
“We all have a heart that loves people and wants to do the right thing, and when the doors are shut on us or we’re kicked out of school or the cuffs are put on, we don’t have those opportunities,” John Swenning, one of the KCUSD restorative justice coordinators, said. “Restorative justice allows that.”
Once Swenning and Harder have the case, they conduct an intake meeting with the student to learn more about their life and what led to the offense. Harder said they will often bring families into the process as well, and speak with anyone in the community that the student looks up to and goes to for advice, whether they be a sibling, coach etc. This way, Harder and Swenning can “provide support and a path forward for (the student), knowing that (the process) is voluntary for them.”
“We explain our roles in that we’re not cops, we’re not learning directors or principals,” Harder said. “We’re here to support them, to hold them accountable, (and) to be accountable to them as well.”
Harder and Swenning will then go to the victim and conduct the same process with them, once again bringing in their families if the victim is also a juvenile. When everyone is ready and the offender is prepared to apologize to the victim, Harder and Swenning will coach them on how to do that by talking through what an apology looks and sounds like.
After that, all parties get together with a mediator to discuss the situation and determine how the offender can make amends. To keep everyone accountable, Harder said they also create a conference agreement to document the exchanges that took place and the agreed upon path forward.
Swenning said they make sure to explain that they are not going to determine what the consequences of the offense are – that determination comes down to the offender and the victim.
“They come together as a group … they decide together, along with the family and support, what’s best for the victim number one, and what’s best for the offending student moving forward,” Swenning said.
As the program has evolved and improved, Harder and Swenning are sometimes able to start working on a case on the same day an offense occurs, and one of the benefits of the initiative is that everyone involved can see a resolution much sooner than if the case was in the court system.
Harder said they take as much time as is needed to get to know the offenders and victims, speak with them about the offense and really understand their situation so they can rectify the offense and ensure it doesn’t happen again.
“We have the privilege to be able to go and ask these questions and be able to understand,” Harder said. “We’re just trying to understand everybody and their perspectives and what’s going on.”
The RPBI process takes between 10 and 45 days, while a case in the county courts can take three to six months or even up to a year to be resolved.
Swenning added that in many cases when they meet with a juvenile offender, that student might not have known that what they did was a criminal offense.
“Once that reality is pointed out to them, then they start processing that differently,” Swenning said. “They start looking at it differently, and we don’t even have to bring up that … this can be sent back to the police department.”
Ediger said the initiative first started as a solution to a California criminal justice system that was not processing juvenile criminal cases, leaving little to no consequences for the offenders.
“We were like pioneers in this aspect of incorporating restorative justice at a city police department/city government level,” Ediger said. “It had been done for 20-plus years at the county level through VORP (the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program); the problem with that is we have no say so over what happens to the cases once they get to court.”
The police department, city, school district, CYM and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) joined together to figure out how to create a new system in Reedley that would address crime more effectively, Ediger said. Through working with the DA, they determined that they would handle their own cases that fell into the scope of what they knew they could work with.
According to data recorded by the RPBI team, the initiative has handled 663 cases involving 1,033 offenders and 266 victims as of Aug. 31. With 50 re-offenders, that puts the recidivism rate at 5%. Additionally, between 2011 and 2022, juvenile misdemeanor arrests in Reedley decreased as the initiative took on more cases.
Most cases that the program has addressed have involved assault, drugs and alcohol, vandalism and threats. Ediger said that about five years into RPBI, he conducted a study where he determined that each juvenile misdemeanor case cost the county court system $10,500.
“Whether or not that’s tangible is one thing, but imagine if every community or every city took the responsibility of that; (imagine) how much burden that would lift off of the court system, and how many juveniles … would not have their name entered into a database,” Ediger said.
Smittcamp said that a successful restorative justice practice gives the criminal justice system more time to focus on more serious cases, and it keeps people vulnerable to committing crimes out of jail. She said that when young people get put in jail, they learn how to commit other crimes, and if they’re already struggling for whatever reason, they can begin patterns of criminality that the restorative justice program helps disrupt.
“Really, the goal of a good and ethical prosecutor is to make people accountable, but also spend time ensuring that the person gets out of the criminal justice system and they don’t return with a new victim in a new case,” Smittcamp said. “When restorative justice is done correctly, it’s extremely effective because it serves everybody.”
Swenning said Reedley’s program has worked so well because all of the partners involved have endless trust in one another, and they’re all willing to put in the work.
Part of that work involves case management, and ensuring that the program coordinators are accountable to the students as well. The program coordinators document everything they do so that they follow through with the help they say they will give, which reinforces the trust all parties have in them, which allows people to open up in difficult situations.
Furthermore, young people respond to the program because they’re inherently good and just want to do what’s right, Harder said.
“They don’t want to live with knowing that they’ve harmed somebody, or done something wrong, and they don’t have that opportunity to make it right,” Harder said. “When presented with that opportunity to do that … nobody has to convince them.”