Runaway train: a post with a theme song.

There is a theme song for this post. It’s Eliza Gilkyson’s song Runaway Train. You can listen to it on Eliza’s MySpace Page (google Eliza Gilkyson; the MySpace link will come up.)
 
I met recently with a juvenile court judge who succinctly described the dilemma we’re in. To paraphrase, the judge said that economic conditions are leading to a steady chipping away of services. Some non-profits have closed, and most are impacted by budget cuts, which of course translates into fewer services. Internal services that the court relies upon (those provided by various county agencies) are shrinking also. Offenders (and their parents) have fewer resources to help pay their share of cost of services; many of them are on or over the financial brink already. “I’m afraid,” the judge said, “that eventually the only option I’ll have is to send kids to juvenile hall.”
 
The irony is obvious: juvenile hall is the most expensive option we have. Arguably it is also the least effective for many of the young people who spend time there. But there is a kind of inertia built into the way our society is structured. It is fairly invisible during times of economic expansion, but when hard economic times appear this inertia becomes frighteningly visible. It is the set of factors that are now pushing inexorably toward contraction of non-profits and the creative, reform-minded services we offer.
 
As far as I can tell, here’s an example of how it works: in Sonoma County we’ve built a beautiful juvenile justice center that houses the courts, probation, juvenile hall, and various other facilities. It’s located below Hood Mountain in the scenic Valley of the Moon, home to many great vineyards and wineries. I understand it’s a great improvement on the prior facilities. And when it was built (in times of economic expansion), why, it no doubt made fine sense both fiscally and programmatically.
 
But now budgets are insufficient and everywhere cuts are required. How does the financial burden of a beautiful facility such as our juvenile justice center sustain its fair share of the cuts? I’m no expert on this, and perhaps I’m being simplistic, but it appears to me that the answer is: it doesn’t. We’re stuck with it. The beautiful jail we’ve built for our kids is also a jail for the funds that we need to serve the kids to keep them out of jail in the first place. 
 
It feels a bit like we’ve built a train that has somehow gotten away from us and is careening down the tracks on its own inertia, out of control.
 
Nobody wanted this, and nobody wants the situation to devolve to where juvenile hall is the only option. So, the question is: how do we enter into a problem-solving process as a community where we can acknowledge this inertia and find creative ways to deal with it. If it were up to me, we would use circle processes in which all the key stakeholders and decision makers participated. We would spend days doing this, not just a few hours. First we would deepen our sense of community and get to know each other better. That might take, say, two days. It would at some point involve talking about and exploring the impacts we are feeling personally from the situation we are in, and how we see others being impacted. Only after these preliminaries would we tackle the problem-solving.
 
I know, it sounds impractical; it would take way too much time, etc. But I think these objections arise from inexperience with the method. Circle processes are powerful, and in times like these may be the most efficient approach we can use. Part of what learn from restorative practice is that building community is essential, and that harms arise from and are sustained by fractured communities and families. We’re all in this together; does it not make sense to take the time to deepen our sense of community? It’s just possible that the solutions we might discover will be simple, powerful, and elegantly appropriate to the particular times in which we find ourselves.
 
I volunteer to be a circle keeper for this project. Anyone else on board?

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