Neighborhood Courts offer restorative justice: Let’s keep low-level offenders out of court

A meeting of Santa Cruz County residents interested in the Neighborhood Courts program
(Via Conflict Resolution Center of Santa Cruz County)

Imagine someone hits your car and leaves the scene. Or maybe your child or friend gets caught shoplifting or with a fake ID. Should that person face court, a possible criminal record? Danitza Torres, coordinator of Santa Cruz County’s Neighborhood Courts program, thinks there is a better way, one that involves restorative justice and a chance for people to take responsibility for their actions and for victims to get closure on low-level offenses. Neighborhood Courts have resolved 130 cases in the county in the two years since it started. Torres explains how it works here and puts out a call for volunteers to serve as panelists to help resolve cases.

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The Neighborhood Courts program is bringing lasting change to our community by keeping more people out of jail and out of the criminal system. It’s a non-punitive process that focuses on encouraging accountability and on repairing harm.

I know. I am the coordinator and I’ve seen the program work for families, neighborhoods and individuals. The idea is simple. Instead of going to court, the program offers select, low-level offenders a chance for a restorative justice process.

That involves talking about what offenders have done, engaging with their victim (if the victim chooses to participate) and acting in a way that “repairs” some of the harm they caused. The program has existed in San Francisco, Yolo County and Los Angeles for a few years and began in December 2020 in Santa Cruz County.

The program is important for not only those accused of wrongdoing. Really, it’s working for all of us because it is keeping many first-time offenders out of court and jail and pushing them to talk through what led to their actions. We are promoting an active response to wrongdoing and to taking responsibility, which is not always easy.

Participants work to repair the harm they caused and to do the hard work necessary to make sure the same harm does not happen again.

We know this makes them less likely to reoffend. Less likely to end up in jail or prison. Less likely to hurt others and our community.

It solves a lot of the issues associated with the traditional punitive incarceration system.

Let me explain.

Imagine someone hit your car and doesn’t leave a note, a hit-and-run misdemeanor.

You feel confused, unsafe, stressed. Were you specifically targeted? Was it just an accident? Who is paying for the damages? Why would someone do that?

You feel upset because you don’t understand what happened. If someone saw the incident and reported it, it could lead to a misdemeanor, court etc. You would not be given much information on the process.

Instead, if this case came to our program, we would talk to the person who did it and get a bigger picture of what was going on in their life at that time. Maybe they got scared, they panicked, they had to take care of their kids and had to leave. Maybe they had no money or license and didn’t know what to do.

We would ask you as the “victim” to tell us how this affected you and we would communicate that to the participant, so they understand how their actions caused real repercussions for you. You would also potentially have a chance to talk to the participant and decide what the person needs to do to repair the harm. That, we hope, will bring you some closure.

Cases vary from misdemeanors like this to battery, low-level assault (a drunk person kicking someone at a party, for instance), shoplifting, vandalism, reckless driving and speeding to making criminal threats. We see a lot of cases involving minors, including possession of fake IDs, alcohol and drug possession and public intoxication.

We think this is a much better process for a minor than a court hearing and having a criminal record.

I can’t talk about specifics of any individual cases as we have strict confidentiality rules.

In San Francisco, the program has been so successful, the city started to offer it in select instances of low-level felony cases, including DUI. We, too, are looking to do this in Santa Cruz County and so far, the district attorney’s office (DAO) has approved five low-level felony cases for our program.

an illustration showing how the Neighborhood Courts program works to connect to restore the offender, victim and community
(Via Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office)

In Santa Cruz County, we started the program with a list of 12 offenses, but now we include up to 48. The DAO chooses which cases come to us.

Attorneys and a program coordinator check case by case to see who could be a good fit for our program. Participants have to agree to take responsibility for their actions to participate.

Once we have a case, a trio of trained community panelists then meets the person in an informal conference, at libraries and similar locations around the county or in some cases virtually. Together, the panelists and participants review the police report and the person offers their side of the story.

Then they collectively discuss what sort of restitution would help repair the harm.

When we started two years ago, our goals were clear. We wanted to figure out alternatives to incarceration, reduce recidivism and promote healing. Incarceration — as we widely know — is not a good solution for low-level offenses. In fact, sometimes, incarceration for low-level offenses puts a fragile person on a path to lifelong confinement.

Our community is no different.

Every case I work on amazes me. The process is astonishing to witness. No matter what, we all come to an initial conference with preconceived ideas about the participants and expectations for the outcome. But during the conference these assumptions get turned upside down. Always. We never know as much as we think we do about someone else.

— Danitza Torres

Our jail was built in 1981. More than half of the 300-350 people it regularly houses have mental health needs. Rates of recidivism hover around 60%.

As of today, just over two years in, Neighborhood Courts have handled 130 cases and trained more than 30 volunteers from diverse backgrounds to serve as volunteer “panelists.” These volunteers commit approximately three hours of their time each month to serve on the trio panel for the conferences.

We look for volunteer panelists with a firm commitment to justice and an interest in community-building. Friday is the last day to apply for this year’s cycle of panelists.

I often observe cases from start to finish. Each is a transformative learning experience.

Danitza Torres thinks we need alternatives to incarceration.
(Via Danitza Torres)

I am a Chilean anthropologist deeply committed to social justice and dedicated to creating positive change in our society. I moved from Chile in 2017 with a great passion for equality, compassion and justice. I see promoting restorative justice practices and fostering a supportive environment as a way to create a more inclusive community that embraces the potential for change and provides meaningful opportunities for all individuals, regardless of their past actions.

Every case I work on amazes me. The process is astonishing to witness.

No matter what, we all come to an initial conference with preconceived ideas about the participants and expectations for the outcome. But during the conference these assumptions get turned upside down.

Always. We never know as much as we think we do about someone else.

I’ve watched panelists shift their perspective, open their minds as they listen to the stories shared. Panelists see the human being behind the offense. A person with a unique set of circumstances, struggles and motivations.

Victims also gain a sense of empowerment and have a voice in shaping the outcome, leading to a truer healing and reconciliation.

To repair the harm caused by participants, panelists work collaboratively to create a personalized agreement tailored to the specific circumstances of each case. These agreements encompass a range of tasks, including community service, educational courses, workbooks, restitution and heartfelt apologies.

By engaging participants in meaningful and restorative actions, we guide them on a path toward personal growth and accountability.

All involved parties, including participants, victims and panelists, sign a formal confidentiality agreement, ensuring that the conference space remains a safe haven for open and honest dialogue. This commitment to confidentiality not only encourages participants to be transparent but also builds trust among all parts, allowing for genuine connections to form.

The success of Neighborhood Courts speaks for itself. More than 90% of our 130 participants have fulfilled their agreements. We are beginning to track recidivism rates, but anecdotally, we know they are low.

The feedback from participants has been positive. They express gratitude for the opportunity to be heard, understood and respected during the conferences. Many have shared their profound experiences of personal growth and the restorative impact it has had on their lives.

It is these stories that inspire us to continue expanding our reach and making a difference.

For now, the growth and sustainability of Neighborhood Courts relies on the dedication and commitment of volunteers. We are always in need of individuals — particularly those who speak Spanish — who believe in the power of restorative justice and are eager to contribute to their community.

I extend a warm invitation to all who are passionate about promoting justice, fostering accountability and strengthening community bonds to join us. Together, we can continue to build the social capital needed to support this successful and much-needed program.

Danitza Torres is the coordinator of the Neighborhood Courts program at the Conflict Resolution Center of Santa Cruz County. She has a degree in anthropology from Universidad de Concepcion, Chile. Danitza brings her experience in restorative justice, community work and preventive programs. In Chile, she coordinated social programs for impoverished youth, Indigenous communities, people with disabilities, entrepreneurs and incarcerated people. She is passionate about providing alternative solutions to reduce recidivism and advocating for changes in the criminal justice system through life skills training and social reintegration. She moved to Santa Cruz in 2017.

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