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What Exactly IS Restorative Justice?

"Restorative justice philosophy focuses not on a crime that is committed and how to punish an individual, but instead on the harm that was caused, who was affected, and how to repair the harm done."

--Arica Barton, youth advocate, City of Evanston, Parks, Recreation and Community Services

Arica Barton provides services to youth and their families, including free counseling services, community service, and restorative justice programs, such as peace circles, sharing circles, and family group conferences.

Barton counsels families, runs the diversion program that offers juveniles alternatives to arrests and court referrals, and coordinates restorative justice programs, a victim-centered response to crime that allows the victim, the perpetrator, their families, and community representatives to come together to discuss harm caused and to divert referred youth from the judiciary system.

But what exactly is restorative justice? How does a peace circle work?

Q: I asked Arica to explain.

A: Restorative justice, or RJ, is a process of peacemaking and communication that dates back to tribal times. Restorative justice philosophy focuses not on a crime that is committed and how to punish an individual, but instead on the harm that was caused, who was affected, and how to repair the harm done.

RJ can be practiced in many different ways, but the goals are the same: to give victims a voice, help perpetrators of harm to be accountable to themselves and other, and to increase community safety through building community.

Trained volunteer community members participate in our restorative circles because any time a harm is committed in our city, everyone connected to Evanston is affected. Restorative justice empowers our community to take responsibility for the well being of its members through building on our youths' strengths and competencies.

Q: What's a peace circle?

A: A Peace circle is one form of restorative justice that's implemented to build relationships, increase empathy, improve communication, and resolve conflict. Not all circles are restorative justice circles. There are also peace circles that focus on loss, celebration, sharing, and acknowledgement. Youth Services facilitates peace circles and family group conferences.

Q: What's a family group conference? Is it different from a peace circle?

A: A family group conferences are a more formal RJ practice where a specific harm event occurred, as opposed to an ongoing conflict. In family group conferences, referred youth and their family will complete counseling sessions to ascertain some of the underlying factors and root causes that may have contributed to the youth’s harmful behavior.

During a conference participants can share how the incident affected them, ask questions, and determine how to repair harm through a reparation agreement.

Reparation agreements are designed to address the needs of those harmed, including the victim, the referred youth and their family, and the community as a whole. They often involve counseling, community service focused on civic engagement, or enrollment into activities that increase youth competencies.

Q: So how does restorative justice work?

A: All restorative practices have the same guidelines: listen and speak from your heart; focus on your own actions and how they may have contributed to the problem; conflicts are resolved through the consensus of all participants; and, confidentiality; what is said in circle stays in circle.

Peace circles use the art and practice of storytelling to bring people together and make connections. It's hard to disagree with someone's life experiences and personal stories. People who come to the circle on opposite sides of a conflict often leave realizing they have more in common than they could have imagined.

Q: What are the benefits of a peace circle?

A: Peace circles provide opportunities for youth, families and community members to come together and address problems. They build interpersonal and problem-solving skills for youth, as well as provide a safe space to process how they have been impacted by a situation, and actively listen to how they have impacted others.

Peace circles help to develop community and create safety through teaching empathy and building relationships. The idea is that if we know our neighbors in a meaningful way, we are less likely to harm them. Participating in a peace circle or family conference can sometimes serve as an alternative to court involvement, and can keep juveniles out of the criminal justice system.

Q: Do you only do peace circles with people convicted of a crime? Who else can benefit?

A: City of Evanston's Restorative Justice program is one of the many diversions our juvenile officers use to prevent youth from becoming involved in the juvenile justice or court system. This is an early prevention program so none of the youth involved have been convicted of a crime.

Peace circles are used to avoid arrests and court involvement. Sometimes, in situations where a large harm has been committed, the Juvenile State's Attorney will recommend a circle to address the problem and keep the youth from further involvement in the courts.

Youth Services also gets many requests from community members and local schools to facilitate circles with groups in conflict in order to avoid any police contact.

Youth Services has helped to implement sharing circles Evanston/Skokie School District 65 to teach very young children to communicate effectively, listen to other perspectives, and respect diversity. These youth will have developed the skills necessary to resolve their own conflicts so that formal RJ programs may not be necessary in the future. The hope is that all members of our community will be able to mediate their issues without the need to commit harm or violence.

Q: How long have you been involved in restorative justice?

A: I've been a trained facilitator since 2006. The Police Department sent me downstate to get training along with the director of social services and two school resource officers. After eight days and 60-plus hours of training, I was given the opportunity to help develop a Restorative Justice program for the Department's Youth Services Bureau.

Since then, I've participated in numerous additional trainings in circles and restorative justice. This led to the great honor of getting to work with Susan Garcia Trieschmann, who later founded Curt's Cafe, to create the community group, Restorative Justice Evanston, which has recently been incorporated into PeaceAble Cities: Evanston.

Since 2006, we have provided free trainings for Evanston community members to become volunteers in the Youth Services RJ Program and District 65's Sharing Circle Project, or just to bring the healing knowledge of restorative circles back to their own homes and community agencies. And Peaceable Cities hosts a bi-monthy Community Circle to bring neighbors together for story-telling and to learn about the circle process.

Q: What’s your background?

A: I have a Master's Degree in Counseling Psychology from Northwestern University. I've worked at the Evanston Police Department for the last 12 years as a Youth Advocate and Family Counselor, and I've found the addition of restorative justice to my counseling practice enormously enriching.

Q: How does RJ work together with punishment of people who’ve been convicted of a crime—be it a felony or a misdemeanor?

A: Restorative justice is not a punishment. Punishing youth does not help people heal or learn about themselves, nor does it provide options for healthier behaviors.

Youth Services doesn't currently do restorative justice Circles with adults or individuals convicted of a crime. But it could be very beneficial and there are other agencies within Chicago, the US, and even worldwide that do facilitate Restorative Circles with adults and higher level harms. This is called Transformative Justice.

Q: Many people would say this approach is being soft on crime ...

A: I don't know how many people have had the opportunity to sit across from an individual they've harmed, look them in they eye, and take responsibility for the hurt, fear, and loss on the part of the other person. It's a very intimidating and humbling process.

Having youth see that there is a person connected to a negative behavior and that it's caused a negative ripple that's affected a great number of people is an eye-opening experience. Youth feel more naturally compelled to 'right their wrong' and make a positive ripple in the community.

I've had the privilege of witnessing true accountability and acknowledgement from the perpetrator of harm, as well as the courage of true reconciliation and forgiveness on the part of the victim. Maybe the approach is "soft on crime" but it is more effective and promotes more responsibility, reparation, and healing for the entire community.

Join Arica and learn the art of peacemaking!

If you've never participated in a peace circle, this is something to check out.

WHEN: Wednesday, March 21, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

WHERE: Civic Center, room G300

WHO: The peace circle will be facilitated by Youth Services social worker Arica Barton. Arica is also on the board of Peaceable Cities Evanston.

RSVP: Arica Barton,

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