For Youth Offenders, It’s Payback Time

Lincoln, Nebraska


Marilyn Perez sometimes struggles to sleep in her own bed, ever since that terrorizing night last year when a gun-wielding man broke into her apartment after killing someone, then held police at bay until they blasted the place with tear gas and found him bleeding into her mattress. Now she sits on her living room couch surrounded by a half dozen juvenile ex-offenders, and they want answers:

      “Are you still angry?”

      “How much did all the damage cost you?”

      “Are the curtains okay?”

The youths have just hung rods and white curtains in the living room and bedroom. A few weeks ago, they painted the walls and delivered a new bed. Now they sit on Perez’s floor and stuffed chairs, taking notes as she explains the crime and how it affected her.

The young men are part of the growing restorative justice movement, wherein offenders work to restore the damages of crime to victims and communities, and (it is hoped) acquire the empathy, skills and education they need to avoid re-offending.

Susan Blackburn, balanced and restorative justice specialist with the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission, says restorative justice is “synonymous with juvenile justice reform.” With several hundred programs around the country, evidence is emerging that the approach helps victims overcome the effects of crime and often reduces recidivism. But restorative justice efforts are hampered by skepticism among courts, police and victims’ rights groups, and a tendency to focus on low-level offenders.

“How big a dent is it making? Probably not very big,” says Professor Gordon Bazemore of Florida Atlantic University, one of the foremost researchers on the subject. Although promising, “It is still in many places fairly marginal.”

It’s not for lack of trying: Around the country youth workers are using restorative justice, which is geared primarily toward helping victims, to rehabilitate adjudicated youth through victim empathy courses, GED preparation and job skills training. Among the efforts:

  •  In Orlando, Fla., teens mow lawns for the state transportation department, or work in Winn Dixie and Taco Bell, to earn money to pay back their victims.
  •  In Pittsburgh, juvenile offenders in the Cornell-Abraxis WorkBridge program take classes in anger management and victim impact, along with vocational training in plumbing, carpentry and masonry so they can repair crime damage.
  • In Deschutes County, Ore., adjudicated youths in the Community Justice Corps work on human services projects, such as constructing a homeless shelter and a domestic abuse crisis center.
  • And in Lincoln, a visitor walks through the warehouse of the nonprofit multi-service Lincoln Action Program to find, amid rows of refrigerators slated for poor families, an area where teens on probation practice repairing holes in drywall, replacing windows and changing locks. Lincoln Action’s Youth Violence Alternative Project (YVAP) illustrates the promise and hurdles of restorative justice, and how one youth worker’s persistence can overcome some of those hurdles.



Lincoln Police Chief Tom Casady remembers when Jim Jones, an AmeriCorps worker with Lincoln Action, came to him in 1996 with an idea to get juvenile offenders to serve crime victims. “I told him he was a few bulbs off plumb,” Casady says. “I told him it won’t be easy to find victims willing to have [adjudicated] young people come by and clean their garages.”

Jones – a 40-year-old Type A whose wife answers the cell phone in his car and explains that he’s on the other phone – was frustrated. Some of the youths in the tutoring program that he helped to run at Lincoln Action were also in the agency’s juvenile offender program, which took youths to a state prison to talk to inmates. Jones had a special interest: He’d been a teenage shoplifter, then served 30 months in prison as an adult for drug-induced robberies before getting an associates degree in drug and alcohol counseling. (See “From Serving Time to Serving Youth,” March.) Jones went on one of the Lincoln Action prison visits, then told Executive Director Beatty Brasch that the program was “bunk.”

The visits did not scare the kids, he said, and the program ignored the impact of the crimes on victims. “Jim would come in my office, he wanted to talk about his visions” to reach juvenile offenders by focusing on crime impact and on how to handle anger and conflict, Brasch says. “I try to let staff go where they want to go,” she says. Besides, with his $8.25 an hour job funded by AmeriCorps, “Jim worked pretty cheap.”

Jones could have tapped into the budding research on restorative justice, a broad phrase that can include community service, monetary payments to victims, victim-offender mediation community boards that decide on restitution, and crime repair crews. Borrowing from concepts such as New Zealand’s family group conferencing and the sentencing circles of Native Americans, restorative justice began evolving into its current state in the late 1970s. In 1993 the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) created a Balanced and Restorative Justice Project to provide training and technical assistance for restorative justice programs.

Jones knew none of that. He relied on his skills as “a collector of people,” Brasch says, contacting local victims’ organizations – such as a battered women’s center and Mothers Against Drunk Driving – asking them to advise him on building the program and to send victims to talk to youths. “He had 40 people on his advisory board before he had a dollar,” Brasch says. That created a core of community activists who felt “vested” in the concept.

He started slowly, with youths from the Lincoln Action tutoring program who’d been arrested for minor offenses, or had not been arrested but appeared on their way. They included his son, Brandon, who’d been charged with shoplifting baseball cards at 14, and Paul, who believes he would have fallen in with a rough neighborhood crowd had he not gotten involved with Jones.

As with many restorative justice efforts, “repair” was broadly defined to mean fixing damage done by a crime (such as vandalized property) or providing service (such as mowing lawns). Jones asked the victims to tell the youths about the crime and how it affected them.

Their referral system was the local news: Jones read crime stories, then called or visited victims asking if his team could do anything for them. That created the first flap.

‘Pushy Guy’

Victims rights advocates are “skeptical” of restorative justice because its proponents often fail to consult the paid advocates about how to work with victims, says Anne Seymour, a veteran victim advocate and head of Justice Solutions, a D.C.-based nonprofit that works on victim assistance. Seymour recently helped train Lincoln’s YVAP staff and thinks the program is “powerful,” but says, “Jim made a mistake. … You can’t just walk in and deal with victims.” She says outreach workers must be trained because some victims are severely traumatized by the crime,  and protocol demands coordinating with the local victims rights advocate.


Around the country youth workers are using restorative justice, which is geared primarily toward helping victims, to rehabilitate adjudicated youth through victim empathy courses, GED preparation and jobs skills training.


In Lincoln, that’s Joanna Svoboda, the civilian head of the victim/witness program within the police department. She told Jones that he risked  “victimizing the victims again” by calling or showing up at their doors asking to talk about the crime and offering to have convicted offenders come to their homes. Svoboda wants her office to contact victims and give them the YVAP phone number. She does that, and Jones agreed to contact victims of severe personal crimes (like assaults) by mail, but he also calls some victims himself to offer information about YVAP.

Police officers also refer victims and offenders to the program, a big step considering that Chief Casady initially liked Jones’ motive but doubted the idea would work. “Fortunately,” the chief says, “Jim is a pushy guy.”


Cops and a Senator

“Overcoming” isn’t a hurdle. Skittishness among businesses and government agencies is a common hurdle for restorative justice proponents. In Orange County (Oralando), Fla., a restitution program called Pay Up set out to put offenders into jobs so that they could pay back their victims, but had trouble getting business to hire offenders. Organizers had to ask crime victims to “donate” the restitution they were owed to community service hours to be performed by the youths. After the program won a state Department of Transportation contract to mow laws and clean litter, more businesses signed on.

“There a confidence level that has to be built up” among institutions to join such efforts, Bazemore says.

In Lincoln, Jones became a regular figure in the police department, presenting his program to mid-level managers and inviting officers to observe it first hand. Sgt. Anthony Butler was skeptical, but finally went one Saturday morning to watch the youths work at a laundromat that had been robbed.

At first the young men were “messing with each other,” Butler recalls, but when the “soft spoken [owner] started to get into the story about how he was robbed, the room went quiet. He explained how he put so much into getting his business going. What was more important to him was his family. What if this person came in contact with one of them?” As the man spoke, his two small children played in the shop.

“I was awestruck,” Butler says. “I didn’t know that a victim talking with young men like that would be so powerful. I could talk to these kids day after day and never have that impact.”

Also impressed was the staff of Sen. Robert Kerry (D-Neb.), one of whom met Jones at a local youth and families conference in 1997. Over the following years Jones and the YVAP staff made presentations to Kerry’s staff in Nebraska and Washington, D.C., and Sen. Kerry visited the program in Lincoln – a relationship that would eventually pay off big.

But the first big money came in 1998, when the Nebraska Crime Commission gave YVAP a $30,000 Juvenile Justice Act formula grant to focus on youths on probation. With the help of that funding and more (from the United Way of Lincoln and the Lincoln-based Woods Charitable Fund, for instance), Jones developed a program that now takes 30 youths a year for nine to 12 months each.

The focus is recognizing and handling emotions, and building on relationships. Meeting twice a week, the youths hear stories from visiting crime victims, talk and write about themselves and their offenses, learn job and trade skills, visit a morgue and the state penitentiary (it does have value in the context of the larger program, Jones says), watch and discuss videos about crime and its impact, and go on recreational outings. The youths “check in” with YVAP weekly by phone, and Jones calls their homes weekly to talk with the kids and their parents.

“They just give them tons and tons of attention,” Butler says. “They’re constantly calling the kids, and they have tons of things for them to be working on.” The mother of one teen in the program says all the attention from Jones “made a big impact” on her son.

After about four months, the youths advance to the Victims First team, which does repair work for victims and talks to them about the impact of the crimes.


Almost all of the youths come from probation department referrals; others arrive by word of mouth or happenstance.


They ask the victim and each other, “Who else was affected?” (such as family members) and “What’s the long-term impact?” (Perez tells them she now takes “nerve pills.”) Later, the youths gather to discuss the crime and its impact. Some of the youths become “team leaders,” helping to organize team activities and discussions.

In many restorative justice programs, like the one run in Juvenile and Domestic Court in Norfolk, Va., the offenders work for the victims of their own crimes, after mediation sessions to talk about the crime and determine restoration. Jones says his YVAP doesn’t have the resources to conduct victim/offender mediation, and Bazemore says that element is not essential.


Low-Level Offenders?

Almost all of the youths come from probation department referrals; others arrive by word of mouth or happenstance. One youth got into the program when his mother, standing in grocery store checkout line, asked the man in front of her about his shirt. The shirt said, “Victims First,” and the man was Jones.

Most of the youths have been convicted of relatively low-level crimes like vandalism, burglary, robbery and car theft, with some convicted of assault. While Chief Casady calls them “middle level” offenders – “These are kids who are already on the radar screen. They’ve had several police or juvenile court contacts” – many restorative justice programs don’t go much beyond diversion for entry level offenders.

“I’m often disappointed at the low level of the cases that are coming into some of these programs,” Bazemore says. Restorative justice programs “can deal with a pretty high level of seriousness” of offense, but the lower levels reflect “what prosecutors and judges are willing to give them.”

One exception is the California Youth Authority, where restorative justice  includes youths convicted of rape, manslaughter and homicide, says spokeswoman Sarah Ludeman. Many of the youths carry out their restoration in prison, with crime victims coming to talk to the offenders and the youths doing prison work to pay back victims.

Getting to that level on a broader scale nationwide would require more evidence of results.


Home Again

What defines success in restorative justice? A plethora of studies through the 1990s showed that restorative justice reduced victims’ fear of crime, and that offenders who go through victim-offender mediation are more likely to fulfill their restitution than are offenders who simply have restitution dictated by a judge.

There have been fewer recidivism studies. A study of more than 6,300 juvenile probation cases in Utah (National Center for Juvenile Justice, 1992) found that youths who paid restitution returned to court “significantly less often than juveniles who did not.” A study of nearly 1,300 youths in five states (co-authored by Mark Umbreit, executive director of the Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota) found that recidivism was one-third less for youth who participated in restorative justice with mediation, and that crimes among participants who did reoffend were “considerably less serious” than the crimes committed by those who had not been through restorative justice.

The Lincoln program will get a long-term evaluation thanks to Sen. Kerry. He inserted a three-year, $550,000 earmark for YVAP into this year’s OJJDP budget. “The Kerry money,” as YVAP calls it, has enabled Jones to more than double the number of service calls to victims (he hopes to log more than 200 this year), and will fund a University of Nebraska study of the program’s effectiveness.

Joe – a 17-year-old  who’d been shoplifting and fighting, and who joined YVAP after being put on probation for “choking a kid who stole money from my little cousin” –  testifies that it works, to his surprise. He says he agreed to his mother’s request to enter the program, figuring, “I’m gonna do this and get out.” But talking with crime victims affected him. “It makes you sit back and think about what you’re doing to people,” he says.

      “He’s a better man,” says his mother.

Victims advocates who come to YVAP to speak with the youths sense that the effort has an impact on the kids – although no one can be sure about the long-term effects. Carol Peterson, a trauma nurse who tells the kids about the consequences of violence and takes them on a graphic tour of the morgue at Lincoln General Hospital, says the youths’ questions and discussions during their sessions show that the kids are paying attention. “When I get a good feeling is when they start talking about personal experiences,” Peterson says.

The victims feel good as well. As the youths leave Perez’s apartment, she tells one of them, “It feels like home again.”


Christina Riford contributed to this report.




Gordon Bazemore

Florida Atlantic University

220 SE 2nd Ave.

Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33301

(954) 760-5663

James Jones

Lincoln Action Program

210 O Street

Lincoln, NE 68508

(402) 471-4515

Mark Umbreit, Executive Director

Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking

University of Minnesota

1404 Gortner Ave., 105 Peters Hall

St. Paul, MN 55108-6160

(612) 624-4923


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