Santa Ana activists have been on a mission to have government leaders transform the way they deal with youths who commit crimes.
And on Monday evening, their effort took another step forward.
At a meeting of the city’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Improvement Committee, three City Council members signaled their support for a restorative justice pilot program centered on community conferencing.
Instead of being sent straight to juvenile hall, a select number of youth offenders would be given a chance to meet face-to-face with their victims and work to repair the damage they’ve caused.
Proponents say the approach has been proven to reduce offenders’ chances of committing crimes again, in addition to healing broken trust within communities and preventing damage from future offenses.
“Data shows that they are less likely to re-offend” after going through this process, said Rafael Solorzano, a coordinator with Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color.
Speaking on behalf of his group and The California Endowment, Solorzano gave a detailed presentation on restorative justice to city officials, saying it’s a model that many Santa Ana community members want to see the city move toward.
“We have to have a culture shift, a paradigm shift” around what questions we ask when kids commit wrongdoing, he said.
Restorative justice calls for having offenders recognize and repair the harm created by their crimes and address the needs of their victims instead of focusing primarily on punishment.
Council members said that while they still have some questions to resolve, they’re generally in favor of the effort.
“I am very supportive. I think it is needed,” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who added that her brother went to juvenile hall as a boy before cycling in and out of jail and prison.
“And now as a 32-year-old, 33-year-old, he has not been able in many respects to understand what it is to live in a society that we all live in … because he’s been incarcerated so much,” Martinez said.
Councilman Roman Reyna said his brother was in and out of jail for years, which “does have a profound impact on the entire family.”
“I definitely love the idea and direction that we’re going into” while having some concerns about what exactly the process would look like, he said.
Councilman David Benavides also signaled his support, while wondering what role the school district’s Police Department can play.
Monday’s presentation was the latest in a campaign for restorative justice programs by activists with the Santa Ana Collaborative for Responsible Development (SACReD), Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color and Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunities to improve the system,” said the city’s police chief, Carlos Rojas, adding that he’s “looking forward” to discussing how to move forward.
Santa Ana faces a tight city budget, a large majority of which is spent on police and fire services.
Among the goals of restorative justice are increasing graduation rates, reducing youth contact with the criminal justice system and lowering suspensions and expulsions at schools, according to Solorzano.
He walked through an example for a youth caught breaking into a home.
Normally, the young man or woman would be arrested and taken to juvenile hall. But under the community conferencing approach, Solorzano said, Santa Ana police can choose to refer the case to a nonprofit facilitator.
The facilitator would do extensive work with the homeowner, if they want to participate, to prepare them for a face-to-face meeting with the offender.
A conference between the victim, offender, police officer, facilitator and a parent would then take place, where the victim walks through how they were harmed.
From there, an agreement is made for the offender to repair the damage they caused, with the facilitator tracking whether they’re following the plan.
If the youth doesn’t follow through, they would be sent back to another conference or referred to juvenile hall, Solorzano said.
City officials aren’t alone in pursuing restorative justice programs.
Santa Ana Unified School District officials are also looking at restorative justice as they seek to reduce their suspensions and expulsions.
Restorative justice has already been implemented in such cities as Portland and Oakland, Solorzano said.
In Oakland’s case, he added, 95 percent of victims were satisfied with the program, which cost about $4,000 per case versus at least $50,000 under the existing criminal justice approach.
“We’re actually looking at some cost savings,” Solorzano said.
Council members, however, said they wanted more detail about what the costs would be.
“There’s always a cost. It’s not free for your organization and certainly for our Police Department,” said Martinez, who also acknowledged the high cost of the current approach.
Reyna suggested that activists reach out to existing youth-oriented nonprofits, such as the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club, to engage in the conversation.
Speaking on behalf of the activist groups, Solorzano asked the council to create a restorative justice task force to research and develop a data-driven pilot program.
The task force should include diverse stakeholders, he added, including crime victims, community youth, parents, police, school officials, county agencies and nonprofit groups.
Activists also recommended that the city contract with an outside group, such as the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, to help train and implement the restorative justice pilot program at no cost.
Going forward, council members asked activists to gather case studies from existing programs in Oakland and Long Beach as well as provide a sample contract from the delinquency council.
Providing that information would better enable the City Council to take the next steps, said Benavides.
“There’s obviously engagement, interest” among city staff and council members, he added.