Restorative justice diversion: A model for the future

“As we hear cries around the nation to ‘defund the police’ we have to ask ourselves whether every role we play in prosecution is appropriate and necessary. If there is a better actor in the community or elsewhere, we need to step back and allow them the space to work.”

  – Chesa Boudin, San Francisco District Attorney

By expanding and deepening our Restorative Justice Diversion work, Community Works is building a new model of justice that focuses on racial equity, fairness, accountability, and healing rather than punishment and incarceration. We know that violence is a cycle, and that harmful behavior, when left unaddressed, finds ways to perpetuate itself–reverberating through communities and generations. Our current system of justice fails to address the root causes of harm and violence–perpetrators are isolated in cells rather than held accountable, and the needs of survivors are largely ignored. In order to rethink justice and safety, we must prioritize community and healing. 

Our Restorative Community Conferencing (RCC) program, rooted in Restorative Practices, is a paradigm shift away from punitive responses to harm used by the criminal justice system, focusing instead on healing harm and restoring relationships through dialogue among those who were impacted and supporting young people in taking accountable steps to amend that harm. 

The United States continues to have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Since the inception of the War on Drugs and “tough on crime” policies in the 1980s, the U.S. prison population grew from 300,000 to over 2 million. Today, a staggering 7 million Americans are currently behind bars or under the supervision of probation or parole; the vast majority of these individuals are people of color. Racial disparities permeate every stage of the juvenile and adult justice systems. Black youth are four times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, making up the overwhelming majority of youth criminalized and swept into the system. In Alameda County, CA, where we provide RJD, 66% of youth booked into Juvenile Hall are Black and 28% Latinx compared to just 4% white. These disparities persist into adulthood where Black adults are 13% of the general population, but make up 40% of the prison population.

No one is currently benefiting from the current state of the criminal justice system, especially youth. Young people who are detained or incarcerated are at increased risk for a number of negative outcomes that can have long-term consequences, such as mental health problems, dropping out of school, difficulty with employment, and rearrest. 

RCC is pre-charge and community-held, which means survivors have a voice in their healing, and young people are held accountable for the harm they have caused without being pushed into the criminal legal system. Research by Impact Justice (2017) shows that restorative justice diversion is effective at reducing incarceration, recidivism, and racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. 

CW piloted the Restorative Community Conferencing (RCC) program in 2008 through a partnership with the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office to divert youth ages 17 and under from system-involvement. At the time, the program was one of the state’s only pre-charge diversion programs for youth arrested on serious misdemeanors and felonies. In 2016, based on our success in Alameda County, CW replicated the model in San Francisco, known as the “Make it Right” program, through a partnership with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. To date, over 300 individuals have avoided prosecution through these programs.

A primary goal of Restorative Community Conferencing is to address racial disparities by diverting young people of color that are disproportionately pushed into the criminal justice system. We do this by training district attorney’s offices on the root causes of the racial disparities in their local justice systems and how implicit racial bias can affect prosecutorial decision making by unconsciously favoring white individuals over other groups. Over 78% of our current participants are people of color, and recidivism rates for Black and Latinx youth who go through the program are drastically lower compared to their peers on probation.

RJD offers a framework for how to respond when wrongdoing occurs. The focus on punishment within the criminal legal system often creates a void as it fails to accomplish the two primary goals it claims: 1) serving to heal the person harmed and 2) accountability and growth for the person who caused harm. Our program fills that void by making a radical commitment to meet the needs of those harmed, those who cause harm, and community members impacted. RCC operates outside of the criminal legal system, therefore, providing space for those affected by harm to have a voice in their healing process and relationships to be genuinely restored. 

Since RCC is pre-charge, the person who caused harm does not face additional roadblocks to housing, employment, and other areas of life that follow a criminal record. It also prevents the cycle of arrest, incarceration, and recidivism that is all-too-common among young people who become entangled in the justice system. Restorative justice diversion is also significantly less costly than prosecution and incarceration. The RCC program has an annual cost of $10,000 per case, while probation costs the public $52,000 per individual, and incarceration nearly $430,000 per individual each year. Since 2015, the RCC program has saved Alameda County over $25.5 million in youth probation and incarceration costs. Instead, the millions in annual cost savings from restorative diversion programs could be re-invested into community-based efforts to address the structural inequities and barriers that lead to system contact in the first place, such as health care, affordable housing, and education.

Today, we are pleased to partner with San Francisco’s District Attorney, Chesa Boudin, to ambitiously increase the number of individuals referred to this program and, for the first time, provide restorative justice diversion opportunities for transitional age youth (TAY), ages 18-24. Our formal agreement with the San Francisco DA’s office to include TAY is a critical step toward reducing the local jail population, as they are disproportionately represented in our carceral system. Transitional age youth (TAY), ages 18-25, are also disproportionately arrested and have the highest recidivism rate of any group. While TAY make up 10% of the general population, they account for over 30% of arrests. These young people are impacted by high rates of trauma, poverty, and lack of access to housing and employment. They are at a stage of development where decision-making abilities are not yet fully mature, which can lead to risk-taking behaviors to include engagement in crime. 

In June 2020, CW was awarded a $2M grant from the California Board of State and Community Corrections to build project scale and impact, as well as develop the nation’s first regional collaboration of district attorney’s offices and community-based organizations implementing restorative justice diversion across the San Francisco Bay Area.

Restorative Community Conferencing is our answer to the badly broken and deeply harmful system of justice in this country, and we hope that the expansion of this model will provide communities across the nation with a blueprint for transforming the way we address and prevent harm in the future. Expanding and promoting the RCC program throughout the Bay Area and beyond is just one step forward as we continue to find new ways to envision a future where justice heals.




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