Few would consider America’s criminal-justice system a model for the rest of the world; 52 percent of offenders are reincarcerated within three years of their release, according to U.S. Justice Department statistics.
“We have a culture very focused on punishment rather than accountability,” says Lauren Abramson, a child psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins who’s developed an alternative technique for dealing with young offenders. It was during a chance encounter at an international conference in 1994 that Abramson learned how the Maori people of New Zealand resolve conflict. Forgoing the courts, the Maori gather everyone involved in an incident to collectively mete out justice. To Abramson, these “community conferencing” sessions seemed a perfect venue for handling lesser crimes in the U.S. After several years of talking—with teachers, police officials, and leaders in some of Baltimore’s more distressed neighborhoods—she established the Community Conferencing Center in 1998. The organization takes referrals from schools, police, and prosecutors looking for a cheaper, more effective way to deal with kids who’ve been caught, say, tagging a house with graffiti or stealing a car for a joyride.
A “community circle” session opens with the perpetrator talking about what happened, and then all the participants—victims, parents, bystanders—are invited to discuss how the crime affected them. It’s a little like a drug intervention, except that it ends with everyone coming to a written agreement, which invariably includes an apology and some form of restitution (for example, the perpetrator performs community service or takes an after-school job to pay for a stolen bike).
“In the process, people really start to connect as human beings and not look at someone as ‘that punk-ass kid who stole my car,’ ” says Abramson, who last year won a fellowship from PopTech, a networking group for innovators. Of 1,000 circles held since the group’s inception, 98 percent have resulted in consensus for a resolution, and fewer than one in 10 kids who go through a circle end up back in the criminal-justice system, says Abramson, who’s helped set up similar programs in New Orleans and Brooklyn.