ON THE BEAT: Reedley’s path to restorative justice

Reedley Police Community Academy meeting highlights success of RPBI program, which gives victims a voice while holding offenders accountable

(Left to right) Restorative Justice Coordinates John Swenning, Ben Hernandez and Jake Harder presenting at the Reedley Police Community Academy meeting on May 15. (Darren Fraser)
Darren Fraser
Published May 17, 2024  • 
10:00 am

REEDLEY – The third installment of the Reedley Police Department Community Member’s Academy focused on two programs in the city that, outwardly, appear to have little in common with each other. But closer inspection reveals the two are wholly contingent upon the same factor – human beings willing to take accountability. 

Reedley Police Department (RPD) Commander Marc Ediger participated in both presentations on May 15, the second of which focused on Restorative Justice and Reedley’s iconic Peace Building Initiative (RPBI).

“No other department in the state of California is doing what we’re doing,” said Ediger.

The RPBI program is achieving justice and satisfaction for victims of crimes through pre-arrest mediation that brings offenders and victims together, and has been doing so since Ediger and John Swenning, a Restorative Justice Coordinator employed by Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), created it in 2011.

Ediger said the city enjoys complete autonomy.

“We created our own criminal justice system,” he said.

ACCOUNTABILITY AND A VOICE

RPBI guarantees a victim has a real say in an offender’s punishment. Since the program works outside the normal channels of the criminal justice system, these resolutions do not involve incarceration. However, they do involve financial restitution – when applicable – and they do require that offenders take total accountability for their actions. 

Just as important, said Swenning, RPBI gives victims a voice.

Swenning worked in law enforcement for 15 years. He spent most of that time working as an investigator for the district attorney’s office. What he saw was a criminal justice system that repeatedly revictimized victims and held defendants to zero accountability for their actions.

“These defendants never have to take responsibility for their actions,” he said. “Their lawyers or public defenders speak for them.”

However, victims do have to speak when they are called to the stand, where they are subjected to grilling by the defense council.

“Which means they relive the trauma again and again,” Swenning said.

Swenning and Jake Harder are two KCUSD Restorative Justice Coordinates. Ben Hernandez, 21, is the newest addition to the team. Hernandez is a Restorative Justice Manager employed by Community Youth Ministries (CYM).

Harder mentioned that Restorative Justice is not unique to Reedley. New Zealand’s juvenile justice system is rooted in a Restorative Justice model and Canada also relies heavily on the practice for dealing with its youthful offenders. What distinguishes RPBI, said Harder, is it is the only program of its kind that has the complete support of the community – which is not just a luxury.

“RPBI would not work without the support of the community,” Harder said.

On average, juvenile cases take months to be adjudicated. Even when a mediator is called in to expedite issues, the case resolutions can take upwards of six months to a year.

“We had a case in Orange Cove,” Ediger said. “A mediator was called in. He didn’t arrive for a year.”

Under RPBI, victims and offenders are contacted within five to 10 days. After an offense is committed, the case is referred to RPBI. Coordinators arranged for the offender and victim and their families to meet. A community facilitator is called in. 

During these discussions, the opposing parties agree on a contract. This contract holds the offender accountable for their action. The contract spells out what restitution the offender will make. Only after the offender has completed the terms of the contract is the case resolved.

SYSTEMIC INADEQUACIES AND LIMITATIONS

Ediger, Swenning and Harder agreed that California’s criminal justice system appears broken, but it’s actually working as intended. Defense lawyers have the right to access all the evidence collected by the prosecution. They need time to review this material and can ask the judge for additional time if necessary.

The system is overburdened; employees are overworked. Individuals taken to Fresno County Jail are cited – or released – immediately.

“They (defendants) are back in town before my officers,” Ediger said.

Ediger said 30% of juvenile cases never make it to court. Many are settled during the endless pretrial conversations that take place between the district attorney and the defense, or the DA refuses to prosecute because the case lacks a red bow.

“Nice and tight,” said Ediger.

In those rare cases when a juvenile defendant’s case winds its way through the Byzantine juvenile justice system – Ediger said defendants can go months, even years, without any notification from the court regarding their case – more often than not, the end result is a complete deflation for the victim because the offender gets off with the proverbial slap on the wrist.

As an example, Ediger mentioned the 17-year-old suspect accused of murdering his four neighbors last January in Reedley.

“We’re still working on the second transfer hearing,” Ediger said. A transfer hearing is the procedure that determines if a juvenile will be tried as an adult. The decision is entirely entrusted to the judge.

“That hearing probably won’t even take place until next year,” Ediger said.

For Ediger, Swenning, Harder and Hernandez, RPBI must never lose sight of its two fundamental tenets: the voice of the victim and the offender taking responsibility for their actions and agreeing to be held accountable.

From 2011 through 2023, RPBI dealt with 1,043 offenders. Of that number, 78 were arrested after completing the Restorative Justice program. Twenty-one offenders failed to complete the program. When it comes to offenders who completed the program, 94.5% did not reoffend.

According to a 2017 report from the California Division of Juvenile Justice, within three years of being released from custody, over 74% of youth were re-arrested and over 53% were reconvicted of new offenses.

HOMELESSNESS IN REEDLEY

Commander Marc Ediger and Sergeant Jesus Rivera with the Reedley Police Department during the presentation on the town’s homeless population. (Darren Fraser)

Sergeant Jesus Rivera takes the lead for situations surrounding homelessness in RPD. Rivera knows all the 29 homeless individuals in town. He has dealt with them on multiple occasions. He provides them with free cell phones. He provides resources, hygiene products, trips to Fresno for health appointments. But after years of working closely with this population, Rivera admits he gets frustrated.

“Many of these individuals just don’t want to be helped,” he said.

During his presentation to the Member’s Academy, Rivera was upbeat and pleasantly pragmatic. He has made significant inroads during his work with the homeless who camp out in the river or stake spots in citrus fields. Rivera is extremely well-versed in the causes of homelessness. He understands the detrimental effects homelessness has on the individual and their families.

Rivera is also a fount of knowledge on the services available to homeless individuals. These services include housing assistance, mental health treatment, substance abuse programs, case management, meal offers, food banks and hot meal sites.

Provided, of course, the homeless individual is amenable to receiving the services and is willing to take accountability for their actions.

To illustrate this dynamic, Rivera played a video he recorded of his interaction on April 22 this year with Desiree Balladarez.

Balladarez is a Reedley native. She was married and had a child. She got addicted to methamphetamines, thus, her husband divorced her and took custody of the child. She meandered to Las Vegas for a while but eventually returned home in what Rivera described as a “dilapidated” condition.

When Rivera caught up with Balladarez last April, she was living in a reed hut at River Bottom. The hut resembled something out of a Joseph Conrad novel.

As the video played, Rivera informed Academy members that Balladarez demonstrated many characteristics that he was witnessed in homeless individuals.

Initially, she was receptive to Rivera’s offers of help. But as the conversation continued, Rivera pointed out how quickly she pivoted.

“Now she’s hesitating,” he said. Rivera also mentioned that Balladarez had a tendency to allow her issues to avalanche, removing all hope she would actually take him up on his offer of help.

River acknowledged that the only real hope for Balladarez was if she stopped using drugs. At the start of the conversation, she confessed she was still on drugs.

“Does she stop self-medicating and stop trying to escape her situation?” Rivera asked, somewhat rhetorically. And this is the crux of the matter. From experience, Rivera knows that a homeless individual in the throes of addiction will never escape their situation. Despite the depths to which they have fallen, the lure of getting high or drunk is too strong.

But Rivera’s message was not all bad. He said hope remains for Balladarez and people like her. He encouraged his audience to get involved.

“Volunteer at a shelter or a sobriety home,” he said. He suggested community members disseminate information to the homeless, providing the names and phone numbers for agencies that provide food, shelter and clothing.

Rivera also provided the names of organizations that have partnered with RPD to provide services. These include Serve Reedley, Poverello House, Turning Point, Kings View Behavioral Health Systems and Faith House.

Darren Fraser
Reporter