What’s the best way to handle petty crime?

A recently hired exotic dancer stands in a store’s makeup aisle.  Everything is expensive, but she has to have it for her new job.  She’s also a part-time student, mother of a 2-year-old, and lives with her sister because she can’t afford rent. She puts a couple things in her basket, and slips the rest into her purse, $113 worth of merchandise — misdemeanor shoplifting. A store detective makes the arrest.

A young man goes clubbing with a fake ID. His friends are older, he wants to impress a date, and he doesn’t intend to drink. But he gets caught and cited. A conviction even when it’s a low-level crime, could prevent him from joining the armed services, being awarded a scholarship for college, or getting hired.

A man is unemployed. He gets drunk, argues with his neighbor, and puts a hole in  the neighbor’s fence. His crime is simple vandalism, but why he did it is complicated.

When these crimes are handled in traditional courtrooms, overburdened, understaffed judges usually assess hefty fines and pro forma community service, a rap sheet gets a permanent entry, and it’s on to the next case — assembly line punishment in service to abstract law and order.

I know a different kind of justice, designed for a deeper fix.

In late 2014, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer and his staff put into motion the Neighborhood Justice Program. Built on a restorative justice model, the program is a way for first-time offenders who commit a nonviolent, non-weapons-related and non-drug-related misdemeanor to take responsibility for their actions and work with the victim and the community to repair the harm.

A panel of community members meets with the offender who has agreed to abide by what they prescribe. The panel listens to his or her story and devises appropriate “obligations.” If the obligations are met satisfactorily, there is no permanent record of the offense. The court has one less case to process, and the offender avoids a criminal record. The hope is that the offender learns that his actions have consequences, that he and the community forge a connection and that out of that connection, we build a better city.

I’ve been a volunteer panelist in the Neighborhood Justice Program in Hollywood for more than a year. I applied through the city attorney’s website, did a day of training, observed other panels. Now I sign up for the program’s weekly sessions when I’m available.

Three panelists meet with each “participant” — we don’t call them offenders. The meetings include a trained volunteer facilitator and a liaison from the city attorney’s office. The owner of the store where petty theft occurred or the homeowner whose fence was vandalized is always invited to participate but usually declines. The panel, then, represents the victim and the wider community that is also harmed by these offenses. What’s “restored” in this form of justice is the offender’s standing as a member of the community.

The true beauty of the process is that it’s personal. Participants must acknowledge and accept responsibility for what they did. Then we discuss the effects of the offense. It may seem that talking won’t accomplish much, but this is when I see the light bulb go on in these sessions.

The participants are forced to confront the ramifications of their actions. Will the bar that failed to card the clubber lose its license? Will the store, out hundreds of dollars in shoplifted merchandise, have to raise its prices? Will the neighbor’s fence require repairs he can’t afford?

The panelists learn why participants did what they did. We discuss their families, their work, their hopes for the future. Finally, panelists and participants work together to come up with a way to make reparations.

In our training, we panelists are told to devise obligations that will help the participant think about what happened as well as make amends. It might be a letter of apology to the victim or an essay examining the act and its effects to be read by a larger group of community members. It always includes community service — as much as 24 hours spent applying a participant’s talents toward the neighborhood’s needs.

Sometimes more is required than the opportunity to make amends. In pursuit of rehabilitation for participants, my panel has recommended employment help, GED courses or social services such as therapy or parenting classes.

Once the obligations are set, the participants are monitored by the city attorney’s liaison. Over two months, the liaison decides if the obligations have been satisfied. If not, the case is sent back into the court system.

I know what you’re thinking. This is too easy a way out for these offenders. But here’s what I’ve discovered: Confronting a neighborhood panel, admitting wrongdoing and accepting the consequences the program devises are not nothing. Appearing before a Neighborhood Justice Program panel can be life-changing — I’ve seen it happen.

The results confirm that it works. Since October 2014 the Neighborhood Justice Program has dealt with  828 participants at panels in nine city neighborhoods. As of June 1, 766 participants have successfully completed their obligations. The participants have given 7,334 hours of  community service. The average one-year recidivism rate is very low — 3%.

I don’t know about you, but I am overwhelmed by the perilous state of the world, about how impossible it seems to help. Neighborhood justice is something I can do. My panel and I can ask that exotic dancer to write a letter of apology to the store and another one to her 2-year-old daughter, to be read when the child is older. I can assign her 12 hours of community service helping women in a homeless shelter dress for job interviews. I can hope that  she will continue to volunteer because it’s meaningful to her. If she wants job counseling or child care options, I can offer that to her as well.

It won’t save the world, but it’s change for the better, one person at a time.

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