More on the “School to Prison Pipeline”

There is a new publicly accessible download here, by Thalia Gonzalez at Occidental College. It’s extensively researched and annotated, with lots of data and links to data sources. The principle thesis of the paper is this:

Over the last two decades, youth crime has steadily declined. However, public school districts 
have approached discipline through increasingly punitive policies.  Schools have imposed 
harsher sanctions on students for minor disruptive behavior, such as tardiness, absences, 
noncompliance and disrespect, resulting in a systematic and pervasive pushing out of students 
from schools and into the school-to-prison pipeline.


Colorado’s Omnibus Restorative Justice Legislation

A very significant bill signed into law by Colorado’s governor on June 7 2011. Read the text here (pdf, may take awhile to open).

Below is the summary from Colorado Capitol Watch. But before you get there I want to make a brief editorial comment. I’ve just finished a three-and-half-year stint working in the restorative justice field in Northern California. It is my impression that most officials in our area view restorative justice as a fine program provided by non-profits, which may or may not survive in the current fiscal climate, but which are ultimately expendable. There is little financial commitment to restorative justice, and even less interest in making significant systemic change. I have often heard the opinion expressed that restorative justice is “ok for juveniles, as long as they’re not gang members,” with the implication that that’s about all that it’s good for. I’ve seen how prosecutors tend to be very suspicious of restorative justice, perceiving it as being pro-offender and therefore likely to leave victims who participate feeling mistreated–this in spite of the solid evidence that 94% of victims in our program are very satisfied with it and many report that their involvement with restorative justice was the only healing and supportive contact they found anywhere in the system. In my local area there is now a movement underway to adapt to declining funding by relying almost entirely upon volunteers to provide restorative justice. I have heard professional facilitators ask (reasonably, I think), “If we don’t ask judges, prosecutors, defenders, police, probation officers, etc. to work without pay, why should we ask RJ facilitators to do so?”  It’s a big issue, and one that I’ve found discouraging.

In Colorado the political landscape is different. So, below is the summary of the bill. If you like this, go to the website, download and print out the legislation, and send it to your representatives, county supervisors, chief probation officers, and district attorneys. Someday someone is going to listen.

P.S.–This will probably be my last entry in this blog; as of today I’m no longer at Restorative Resources. I will be carrying restorative justice principles into new ventures.

–Amos Clifford

==============x===========From Colorado Capitol Watch==========x=============

The bill adds restorative justice to the options a court has when it imposes an alternative sentence instead of incarceration or as a part of a probation sentence.

Under current law, restorative justice sentencing provisions are permitted in juvenile cases during advisement, entry of plea, sentencing, and during probation. The bill would make some of those provisions mandatory, including provisions that would require most juveniles to undergo a presentence evaluation to determine whether restorative justice is a suitable sentencing option. Prior to charging a juvenile for the first time, which juvenile would be subject to misdemeanor or petty offenses, the district attorney shall assess whether the juvenile is suitable for restorative justice. If the district attorney determines the juvenile is suitable, the district attorney may offer the juvenile the opportunity to participate in restorative justice rather than charging the juvenile.

The bill directs the department of corrections to establish policies and procedures for facilitated victim-offender dialogues in institutions under the control of the department, which would arrange the dialogues if requested by the victim and agreed to by the offender.

The bill encourages each school district in the state and the state charter school institute to implement restorative justice practices that each school in the district or each institute charter school can use in its disciplinary program.

The bill creates the right for a victim to be informed by the district attorney about the availability of restorative justice practices and the possibility of a victim-offender conference.

Jimmy Carter: Call off the global drug war

From an article in today’s NY Times:

At the end of 1980, just before I left office, 500,000 people were incarcerated in America; at the end of 2009 the number was nearly 2.3 million. There are 743 people in prison for every 100,000 Americans, a higher portion than in any other country and seven times as great as in Europe. Some 7.2 million people are either in prison or on probation or parole — more than 3 percent of all American adults!

Some of this increase has been caused by mandatory minimum sentencing and “three strikes you’re out” laws. But about three-quarters of new admissions to state prisons are for nonviolent crimes. And the single greatest cause of prison population growth has been the war on drugs, with the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses increasing more than twelvefold since 1980.

Not only has this excessive punishment destroyed the lives of millions of young people and their families (disproportionately minorities), but it is wreaking havoc on state and local budgets. Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pointed out that, in 1980, 10 percent of his state’s budget went to higher education and 3 percent to prisons; in 2010, almost 11 percent went to prisons and only 7.5 percent to higher education.

Student comments — Continuation High School Circle

We received this note from a counselor at a continuation high school:

Dear Amos and Jeanna,

I feel so blessed to have had the experience of the circle and the trainings you provided. It is such a powerful experience, but also such a simple and real state of being human that we all probably did naturally when we were young and forgot along the way.

Thanks you for bringing this to our students at Ridgway. It has been very valuable for the kids and I wanted to share some of the comments I heard our kids say:

“It’s like philosophy, but it isn’t and it feels like a huge weight is lifted off.”

“Everyone needs this”.

“Even though I never knew you before today, I feel close to you and can see what we have in common”.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this before and I think it’s important”.

“There isn’t any other place in my life where I can talk like this”.

“Circle is the reason that I look forward to coming to school”.

“Can we do this in the summer?”

Thank you both for your valuable work and for sharing this with so many children and adults. Hoping the circle brings you back to our schools.

with love and respect,

Three Scenes from Friday

1. Three fourth grade students meet in a fishbowl circle while the rest of their class observes. They each work through an issue of their own choosing. When we close the circle we ask, “What was it like for you to be in this circle?” One girl answers: “It’s like there are a lot of feelings inside but they are in jail. Then we talk about them and the jail doors open and they turn into butterflies and I just feel a lot better.”

2. We ask the sixth graders to tune in to how they are feeling, then we go around the room and each one says a single word that fits for them: “Peaceful.” “Angry.” “Normal.” “Happy.” and so on. Then we say “Imagine that all these feelings are ingredients in a soup. We are all living together in this soup right now. What is the soup called?” Immediately a dozen hands shoot into the air. “Creme of Emotion Soup.” “Feelings Alphabet Soup.” And many more ideas. Isn’t it rich? Isn’t it tasty?

3. I ask a student who had just completed a fishbowl circle if he wants my chair for the next fishbowl. Immediately he says “yes.” Now he is in the center with three other students and helps two of them work through their issues. I can see that other students want in, so I ask him to trade with a girl who was in the earlier fishbowl with him. She works with the third student in the circle, finishing the work the other student had started. Then I ask her to trade with yet another boy from the earlier circle. He asks the students the closing question, “What was it like for you to be in this circle?” He also adds a second question: “Do you think it would have been diferent if our adult facilitator was asking the questions in your circle, instead other students?” All the adults lean in to hear the answers to this unexpected question. The students all reply, each in their own words: maybe. But working with each other instead is just fine.

Lots of Training Offerings at Restorative Resources

We’re gearing up for a full-featured training program here at Restorative Resources. The feedback from our trainings on circles and circle-keeping has been very encouraging. We’ve added additional dates because the demand is so high…largely from word-of-mouth spread by participants.

We’re also having a pretty good percentage of attendees return. This makes sense because the format of the circle training is intentionally flexible to allow the circle to take shape in response to the needs and offering of the participants. 

The last three circle trainings we’ve offered have filled up before we even sent out our promotional flyer! We limit the size of the trainings to 12 participants. Next we’ll be adding an advanced circle keepers training, which will be a slightly longer day (8 hours instead of 6 hours for the intro training).

High Quality Questions and Radical Efficiency

One of the key elements that makes a circle work is having a high-quality question that is the shared focus of circle participants.

For example, in restorative justice conferences the core question is: “what can be done to make things right?”

The UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts –NESTA–recently published a research paper titled “Radical Efficiency: Different, Better, Lower Cost Public Services” (Download here).  It describes an approach for rethinking social services based on a set of core principles. The restorative circles model pioneered by Dominic Barter in Brazil is one of the case studies used to illustrate how these principles look in action.

The principles themselves can be reframed as high-quality questions. So I’m advocating that restorative justice and restorative practices programs consider having circles with staff and consituents that focus on these questions. This is an example of what I think of as “restorative inquiry,” which I believe is a critical process that must be ongoing if we are to maintain the deep integrity of what we do. Here are the principles as articulated in the NESTA report, and then each principle translated into questions:

  1. Principle: Make true partnership with users the best choice for everyone.
    • Question: What does it mean to be in true partnership with those we serve?
  2. Principle: Enable committed, passionate, and open-minded leaders to emerge from anywhere.
    • Questions: How do we know when leaders are trying to emerge? How do we react to this? Do we believe that the leadership of volunteers, teens, parents, and other community members is desirable? What can we do to encourage these leaders? What does this principle imply about our own leadership role in the circles we convene?
  3. Principle: Start with people’s quality of life and not the quality of your service.
    • Questions: What does it mean to “start with people’s quality of life?” How can we be attuned to peoples’ quality of life?
  4. Principle: Work with the grain and in the spirit of families, friends, and neighbors.
    • Questions: What does it mean to “work with the grain?” What are the implications for our practice as professionals to work “in the spirit of families, friends, and neighbors?”

Perhaps you will think of other questions that can help you and your co-workers explore these principles. I’d like to know how it goes.