At the start of 2020, Seward Longfellow Restorative Justice was moving into its 16th year and gaining independence: establishing a non-profit, transitioning into its first solo office in the Coliseum, and hiring a second (albeit very part-time) employee. The future seemed stable with steady referrals, an active volunteer pool, and diverse and reliable funding sources. Then news emerged of a virus. We prepared for working-from-home, and I wondered whether my plants would survive the two weeks until I returned to the Coliseum. Two weeks at home became two years and in the meantime Minneapolis, and SLRJ, were forever changed by the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the unrest that followed.
Prior to 2020, the majority of referrals to SLRJ were youth cited with misdemeanors diverted from the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) and Hennepin County Juvenile Court (HCJC) to a restorative justice process. When the pandemic led to stay-at-home orders and a transition to remote schooling, citations of youth for misdemeanor offenses dropped to zero. While citations are currently increasing, a return to pre-2020 levels is unlikely.
Hearing that misdemeanor citations of youth and, therefore, referrals to restorative justice programs have decreased significantly always raises a lot of questions. Here is my perspective from observation, conversation, and data, with the caveat that the impact on our community due to the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd may not be fully understood for many more years. The decrease in referrals is not because eligible youth are no longer being referred. It is because fewer youth are being cited for misdemeanor offenses. Several factors likely contribute to few misdemeanor citations: 1) The Minneapolis Public Schools no longer has School Resource Officers (police officers) in school buildings as they re-committed to resolving student issues in-house. 2) After the murder of George Floyd the community is more reluctant to call the police for low-level situations. 3) When a youth shoplifts retailers are relying more on their employees and the youth’s parents for intervention. 4) Youth are still limited in their activities due to the ongoing effects of the pandemic (e.g. businesses having reduced evening hours). 5) More parents working from home means more adults checking in with youth. 6) The police may not have officers available to respond to non-violent incidents. 7) When the police respond, they may hesitate to take a young person into custody due to push back from the community. 8) When the police response time is long, or there is no response at all, people may be less likely to request help in the future.
It’s a positive change that fewer youth are being cited for misdemeanors, especially if the behavior is being treated as a learning opportunity that is guided by caring adults (e.g. the return to in-house interventions at the Minneapolis Public Schools). Recent advancements in understanding adolescent brain development support a decrease in police and legal intervention in response to youth behavior. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, or the brain’s rational part, which responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Until about age 25, teens and young adults process information with the amygdala, or the emotional center of the brain. The pathway to improving teen problem-solving is to discuss the consequences of their actions which links impulsive thinking with facts and wires the brain to make this connection in the future. (University of Rochester Medical Center). With what we now know about the teen brain we should expect youth to make poor decisions and adjust our responses accordingly to include opportunities for reflection and support, instead of a citation which comes with the added burden of long-term legal consequences.
But, what about felonies? Unfortunately, teens in Minneapolis, and around the country, are continuing to be involved in more serious offenses, such as carjacking and weapons violations. SLRJ does not receive felony-level referrals, due to guidelines set by the MPD and HCJC regarding eligible offenses. While many people assume that these behaviors need the harsher penalties of the legal system, all teens are operating with the same developing brain that needs our support to make better future decisions, support that rarely happens in the legal system. Along with partner restorative justice organizations, SLRJ is an advocate for all youth to benefit from restorative justice responses when they break the law, whether its as diversion from or in combination with the legal system.
While referrals for misdemeanors have decreased, the opportunities to transform our community into one steeped in restorative culture are numerous. SLRJ is experiencing an increase in requests for consultation, training, and restorative processes that do not involve the legal system. We are in the midst of a strategic visioning process to determine how SLRJ and restorative practices can best contribute to the community’s current needs. Through soliciting community feedback, three priority areas are emerging: 1) providing diversion from the legal system, 2) providing RJ processes without involving the police or courts, and 3) growing a restorative culture throughout our homes, schools and workplaces. Of course, any new program area will need new funding sources. For now, we are grateful for the many individuals, churches, and civic groups that provide flexible funding which allows SLRJ to be responsive to changing community needs.
You will be hearing more about our priority focus areas as decisions are made. In the meantime, please continue to reach out to discuss a referral, consult, or request training by email : Michele@SLRJ.org or phone: 612-202-0027. To learn more about SLRJ visit the website www.slrj.org or follow SLRJ on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/SLRJP
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