“Restorative justice is a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.” –Howard Zehr
During the course of a young person working to achieve independence at Larkin Street — passing their GED, building employment skills, learning how to live with others — challenges arise that endanger youths’ success. A resident might steal a cell phone from a housemate, two classmates might get into a fight, or drugs might be found in a client’s room. Breaking rules like these could lead to eviction warnings or even expulsion from a program. This response to conflict can place young people back on the streets, possibly at risk and with little opportunity. Larkin Street uses a strategy called Restorative Practices to respond to these situations in ways which include alternatives to punitive measures.
Many clients at Larkin Street grew up in systems that excluded them when their behavior became erratic or difficult to manage: they’ve been expelled from school, kicked out of their homes, or been to jail. These systems certainly hold youth accountable for their actions, but they are not very supportive or inclusive, and don’t allow youth to explore the reasons for their actions. Restorative Practices seeks to maintain a high level of accountability while also providing support and giving space for our youth to have a voice in how to take responsibility for their actions.
So, how does Restorative Practices respond differently to problematic or harmful behavior? When harm happens, punitive systems are concerned with determining what rule was broken and how to punish the wrongdoer. Restorative Practices instead focus on relationships and community, asking: what happened? Who has been hurt? What are their needs? “Victims” get their needs met, and “offenders” take responsibility for their actions and commit to repairing the harm they caused.
On the ground, Restorative Practices can look many different ways. Staff, programs, and clients at Larkin Street are still learning how to use them. Even at this early stage, it’s making a difference, as illustrated by Geary House assistant manager, Joe Martinucci:
After two residents at the Geary House program fought, part of the program’s response was to work with them to identify what could be done to repair their relationship. Program management, the residents’ case managers, and the residents met separately and as a group to explore what happened and the impact of the incident. The residents discussed where they felt their relationship went off track and how frustration and poor communication created anger and led to the fight.
Next the residents explored what they could do to move forward in their relationship. They decided to clean and reorganize the program’s trash area together. The teamwork and conversations that took place while they cleaned were completely inspiring: they worked together to complete a daunting and physically demanding task and they returned to a relationship where they could communicate their feelings.
Once the job was completed, management and case managers took the residents out to lunch together, where they discussed their new success and reflected on what brought them together. It was also an opportunity to re-iterate the importance of constant communication, especially when living with others as part of a program.
It was a true honor to witness the full circle of actions, emotions, and understanding that took place that afternoon. The power of the lunch was very moving and gave us all an example of what can be done when we open up to speak truthfully & authentically plus listen with our hearts and not our expectations.
Article written by Eva Kersey, Assistant Manager of Professional Development & Claudia Figallo, Manager of Restorative Practices and Professional Development