BREEZY POINT -- A project in the lakes area targets first-time juvenile offenders, offering them an alternative to entering the juvenile court system while holding them accountable for their actions.
The program also lends a voice to their victims, providing a supportive and safe outlet in which to confront their perpetrators about the impact their harmful behavior has had on them, as well as get answers they may be seeking.
The Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project is a new non-profit, volunteer-based organization that offers a forum for juvenile offenders, their families, victims and their supporters to get together, along with a group facilitator, to discuss the incident and decide what type of reparations will be made to those who were harmed. Only those offenders who admit guilt are able to become involved.
The grassroots project, which began offering services to juvenile offenders and victims in September, is operating in partnership with police departments in Breezy Point, Pequot Lakes, Crosslake and Nisswa, as well as the Pequot Lakes School District.
Roger Lynn, a retired United Methodist minister who lives in Crosslake, along with Stephanie Haider, a retired Dakota County probation officer who lives in Breezy Point, spearheaded the project, which also is led by a volunteer board of directors.
Lynn started a neighborhood mediation program and juvenile offender program in the Powderhorn neighborhood of Minneapolis and has extensive training and experience in restorative justice work. He spoke about restorative justice at a workshop at Crosslake Presbyterian Church, which led to him finding out that Haider was living in the area and was interested in developing a similar project here.
Haider initiated, developed and operated numerous restorative justice and victim-focused programs through Dakota County Community Corrections from 1980-2003. She is a consultant for the Minnesota Restorative Services Coalition and a trainer for national organizations. She is one of the co-authors and primary trainers of the curriculum used nationally to train community volunteers for group restorative conferences.
"The important thing about restorative justice is it brings the victim and offender together to repair the damage," said Lynn. "It gives the victim a chance to have a voice in the process and holds the offender accountable, not just punished."
Many juvenile court cases may take six months to get through the legal system. Haider said this can create a huge disconnect for the offender between his or her behavior and sitting in a court hearing where adults are discussing the legal process. In addition, the victim doesn't have a role or say in the matter.
Breezy Point Police Chief Steve Rudek said his officers decide whether a case is referred to the Crow Wing County attorney's office for consideration of juvenile charges or if the offender is referred to the restorative justice program.
Rudek said typically a juvenile referred to the program is a first-time offender and the offense involves a crime like vandalism, theft, harassing phone calls or other harassment issues.
How to help
To help financially support the juvenile court and school diversion project, tax deductible donations may be sent to the Crosslake Presbyterian Church, which serves as the projects fiscal agent, and made payable to: Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project, 14444 Daggett Pine Road, Crosslake, MN 56442.
The school district also may refer juveniles to the program for cases of bullying, harassment and other issues. If victims choose to become involved in the process, they are given that opportunity or they can have someone else represent them at the group conference.
Instead of taking months, the restorative justice program takes only a few weeks before a group conference is held. The meeting involves the juvenile, his or her parents, the victim and the victim's supporters, as well as anyone else who may be involved in the incident. The final part of the process is a contract for reparations, which could be emotional or material, that are repaid to the victim.
Lynn said the atmosphere is very different than a court proceeding. It's a way to repair damages and find ways to help the juvenile offender to make good choices, lessening the chances of reoffending.
"Often when a juvenile does something, it's a cry for help," said Lynn.
Board chair David Slipy said so far the program in one month has served two cases. The community is supportive of the project, Slipy said.
Haider noted that sometimes the punishment doled out through a restorative justice program is more restrictive -- and more effective -- for first-time offenders than any court system.
Haider offered this example of a true story that happened in Woodbury. Three teenage girls chewed large wads of gum, then stuck them in the long hair of another girl they didn't like during class. The girl, mortified, left school after the incident occurred and didn't see the girls until the restorative justice conference.
At that conference the victim showed up with a bobbed haircut. After the victim and the offenders discussed the incident, and many tears were shed on both sides, Haider said the four teenage girls on their own decided the best resolution to the problem was for the three offenders to cut their own long hair just as short as the victim's. In the end, the problem was resolved peacefully and the girls actually became friendly toward each other.
"There isn't a place in the courts for that type of situation," said Haider.
The Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project relies on grants and private donations for its financial support. The program's budget is $33,000 a year and so far those involved have raised a little more than $18,000, leaving about $15,000 to raise to reach their goal.
JODIE TWEED can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5858.
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