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The Verdict: Restorative Justice

“Mr. Makai, you may read the verdict.”

“Frank, the jury has recommended the following restorative consequences: You must write an essay on how to respond positively to peer pressure and on the value of positive achievement, and also how you plan to get yourself back on track to achieve your goals.

“We believe in your potential to achieve your dreams, Frank. We hope you’ve learned, and will continue to learn, from this experience."

“Oh—and a verbal apology to your mother, with a hug.”

It was just another day in Teen Court.

A few months prior, Frank* and his younger brothers, in the youthful pursuit of something interesting to do, found themselves outside their local high school in the Indianapolis area. In the parking lot a lone school bus sat, waiting patiently for the investigation of a group of young boys. Frank gave the door a tug and discovered that the bus was… unlocked.

The boys’ eyes met, as if to decide who would enter the bus first. They signaled non-verbally that Frank, the oldest, and the one with the most to prove, would lead the way.

Once inside, Frank’s attention was drawn to the new radio system attached to the dashboard. Considering how cool he’d look to his younger brothers, Frank pulled a penny from his pocket and began to carefully unscrew the radio from the dashboard.

Frank removed the radio without damaging any of its fragile organs. His brothers cheered as Frank successfully extracted it.

This success, though, was short-lived. The school, riddled with security cameras, gave the authorities a fairly accurate idea of what had transpired. Suddenly, an impulsive action on a whim was confronting Frank with potentially dire, life-changing consequences. Instead, after a series of proceedings involving law enforcement, school officials, and painful phone calls, he got a second chance.

Frank was given the opportunity to take part in the Teen Court program at Reach For Youth. This nationally-recognized program brings youth offenders in front of a jury of their peers who decide which restorative consequences would be best fit to restore the harm that has been caused.

Teen Court Courtroom

Practicing attorneys serve as the judge and give the jury an opportunity to ask questions of the defendant and their families. After successfully completing Teen Court, the offender’s record is expunged and they are spared traditional consequences such as juvenile detention. Teen Court’s restorative approach has been wildly successful, quantifiably decreasing recidivism rates to as low as 2% in some programs.

When Frank took the stand in the Teen Court courtroom, I joined the other the jurors in hearing the details of his case. We heard him admit the harm he did. But, most importantly, we got to hear who Frank was, and what made him tick. We learned that he had always had a mechanical aptitude. He spent his free time taking apart lawn mower motors, old car parts, and any other mechanical or electrical device he could rip apart without getting himself grounded.

This is the kind of person Frank is—a smart, capable, and machine-savvy young man who made a poor choice to impress his peers.

And honestly, who hasn’t? Isn’t that a normal part of growing up?

Peer pressure and the need to feel valid among one's peers does not make one a bad person, it makes them a person.

Frank had big dreams. He wanted to attend Purdue University for engineering. Traditionally, this would be a dashed dream for someone who stole a thousand-dollar radio from a school bus. Given the traditional and punitive youth justice system, it's hard to imagine a youth like Frank having a shot at their dreams.

Luckily, there was Teen Court, a program committed to making “restorative justice” a reality.

Restorative justice doesn't see the offender as a bad person. Quite the opposite. Restorative justice acknowledges the humanity in all of us. As my new friend, DePaul University Professor and Pace e Bene stalwart Ken Butigan, said to me: “Restorative justice is a process for acknowledging that we are all human, that we are all wounded and sacred.”

Frank, like all of us, is wounded and sacred. As a human being, he deserves to have his story heard, to have the circumstances of his life considered, and to be given a voice to advocate for himself.

In the traditional system, Frank would have been treated as a criminal, as a “bad” person, as a delinquent. He would have been punished. “Justice” would have been served. But this “justice” would crush Frank's spirit, his dreams, and his belief in the system. Instead, Teen Court didn’t punish Frank. Teen Court lent Frank its ears—and gave him his voice.

In this innovative courtroom, Frank’s humanity was acknowledged and his story was heard. Frank took responsibility for his actions, accepted the obligations his harm had created, and began the healing process. Frank left court that day a better person, with a second chance.

Teen Court, the jury, the community, saw Frank for who he was and wanted to create the opportunity for healing. Teen Court staff members and volunteers sought to restore the harm in a way that propagated a positive net impact on the community. Teen Court stopped the cycle of delinquency before it ruined Frank's life. Teen Court gave Frank a second chance. Teen Court supported, rather than destroyed, Frank’s dreams.

Teen Court has revealed a truth to me. We villainize our youth. Youth in our communities face peer pressure, substance abuse, bullying and untreated mental health conditions on a daily basis. Yet when these youth act out, they are treated as “delinquents.”

I was fourteen years old when I took my first oath of confidentiality and served on the Teen Court jury in Indianapolis. From the jury box, I saw so-called delinquents through a new perspective. Teen Court allowed me to see the humanity in each offender. Teen Court gave me a definition of restorative justice more powerful than the textbook definition.

Mickey Makai Carrothers, speaking at the renaming ceremony of the Teen Court Courtroom.

Being able to see the dramatic effects of restorative justice gave me hope that our communities could be healed and brought about a passion for the kind of community restoration that once seemed unachievable.

Once inspired by the power of restorative practices, I became more involved in the Indianapolis youth community. From speaking at fundraisers for Reach For Youth, to serving on the Prosecutor’s youth programming committee and the Marion County Youth Violence Prevention Coalition, my goal is to break the cycle of violence plaguing the youth community with the power of Restorative justice.

Restorative justice worked for Frank—and it can work to heal our entire society.

*“Frank” is a pseudonym used to protect the privacy of the young person featured in this story.

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