by Julia Steiny
Eight years ago, Elissa Bellinger was a happy freshman at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She’d never been in trouble, and never expected she would be.
But one night she and her roommates hit the bars and had a few, such as college kids do. Except they got caught by the police for under-aged drinking. Even most high-school students think drinking is no biggie unless something bad happens, like a car accident. But in 1984, Congress pegged the minimum age for purchasing alcohol and public drinking at 21, for all states. So it is illegal.
Besides the humiliation of telling her parents, Bellinger was facing an arrest and maybe conviction on her adult record. However, the University’s Office of Student Conduct offered her and the roomies two choices: Take your chances with the regular Court process, or participate in a new program called restorative justice. If you complete the terms of restitution agreement you make with the community members at the restorative conference, your record will be wiped clean.
Like many college towns, Boulder was plagued with under-age drinking and irresponsible drinking generally. Residents hated the alcohol-fueled riots that erupted at political rallies, lost football games, and similarly lame excuses to drink and go nuts. Every year, cops made thousands of arrests; courts issued fines and sentences. But they weren’t denting the problem.
So in 2006, the town and the University agreed to divert offenders like Bellinger away from the expensive, ineffective court proceedings that wreck kids’ records. The University would handle their students’ under-age drinking offenses, committed on or off campus. The town’s judicial system would expunge a kid’s record if all terms were met.
As such, Boulder was a rare American adopter of the restorative justice philosophy that had long been improving public services in New Zealand, Australia, and other countries. This healing, restorative mindset has struggled to take root in America. Though last year the states of Colorado and Washington both passed legislation to expand restorative justice. Restoration cuts recidivism rates, often to single-digit percentages. Less recidivism means less crime and its associated costs.
Conventional courts determine guilt or innocence and then assign punishment. Offenders don’t learn much from the experience, which is why so many go back out and re-offend.
Bellinger chose to participate in a “circle” or “conference.” She had to describe what she’d done and hear community members express how her behavior had affected them and others in the town. This process is usually uncomfortable for the offender, which is fine. They need to know specifically how their thoughtless, selfish act felt to those on the receiving end. Offenders don’t quickly forget their shame — thus restoration’s low recidivism rates. Then if the group agrees that the offender “gets it,” they all craft a restitution plan. Failure to meet the restitution plan sends the offender back to the courts.
Bellinger says she “knew nothing going into the circle. But that was part of the beauty. It was so new; they’d only just started the program. But also keeping my record clean was a big pull. The conference itself was intimidating, scary and enlightening. It was a really different perspective to look at how I was impacting others. I had to take responsibility for my actions. That was powerful.”
Boulder’s restitution plans included a pre-determined requirement of 12 hours of community service. When Bellinger studied the list of non-profits where she could work, she seized the chance to serve as one of the community members who hear cases such as her own.
“That was amazing. I saw my peers want to take responsibility for their wrong-doing. Having another peer talking with them was powerful. I’ve seen people truly change from this process. So, as a junior, I began facilitating conferences. And in my senior year, I became the case manager for the program. After graduating, I was offered an internship in the Office of Student Conduct. Actually, I had concerns about that job. Except for the one diversion program, I felt it operated from a punitive model. But I figured that the best way to change that was to get inside the organization. During the four years I worked there, I created a new model for handling the huge influx of fake ID tickets coming from the cops.”
And again, with the conferencing program in place, recidivism for fake IDs dropped like a brick.
“I believe everyone deserves these second chances, and not just college students with clean records.”
Today Bellinger is in Smith College’s social-work program, determined to use her degree to help social service systems, especially the justice system, adopt restorative justice techniques.
“My friends say I’m the only person they know who could get into serious trouble and turn it into a career and passion.”
I certainly hope she’s not the only one. Restorative justice saves lives, reputations, families, college careers and communities. As restoration gives more and more people a second chance, surely some of them will join Bellinger in trying to pluck others from the jaws of America’s vengeful, destructive judicial system. Meting out punishments doesn’t help to mend an offender’s broken life or re-knit the community she harmed. Restoration does.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.