People Post is a space for opinion pieces, letters to the editor and guest submissions from members of the Long Beach community. The following is an op-ed submitted by Miles McNeeley, a commissioner and the former chair of the Long Beach Human Relations Commission, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Long Beach Post.
I was about 20 minutes into putting my toddler to sleep when my wife came in the room to tell me we need to board up our bedroom window. Our neighbor had just knocked on our door to let her know that there were teenagers going from house to house breaking windows and doors. Out of fear of broken glass hurting our baby, we used flattened-out cardboard boxes to cover up the window near his crib.
After several days of returned vandalism sprees in Bixby Knolls, the kids were eventually caught. For a variety of reasons, including reassuring talks with the youth’s parents, the affected neighbors I spoke to told me they weren’t pressing charges.
My understanding was that the basic sentiment surrounding the neighbor’s decision not to press charges was that the parents were going to pay for the damaged property. There was some basic trust in the parent’s ability to address the issue with their children and that they wanted to give the families the chance to work things out on their own. One neighbor suggested that the justice system does not typically work as an effective intervention in a young person’s life. Then there are many community members, generally speaking, that hold the view that traditional criminal justice models do more harm than good.
The arguments one may make for or against my neighbor’s decision was not the focus of my thoughts following these events in mid-January. What occurred to me, weeks later, was that there was a third option available to those affected by this incident that many people are simply unaware of – restorative justice (RJ).
Under the supervision of highly trained staff and facilitators, RJ programs provide a platform for people involved and affected by crime to address each other face to face. In using a victim-centered approach, the harmed party can express their needs that have emerged from the harm, while giving the young person the chance to make it right based on those needs. Unlike punitive models, a key benefit to the RJ process is the opportunity to help foster what is such a critical part of an adolescent’s development – a sense of empathy toward themselves and others. These programs are often offered to youth, if the affected party also agrees, as an alternative to facing official criminal charges.
Had we opted for restorative justice, we would have had the opportunity to illustrate the level of impact the teenager’s actions had on our lives. Our elderly neighbor would have had the opportunity to share the level of terror she experienced as her house was attacked. I would have been able to show pictures of my 1-year-old son and the proximity of his crib to the window. In a perfect scenario, the youth would have demonstrated transformation and those impacted would be witness to this transformation. The individuals and community would have accomplished much more than simple punishment of the offenders—they would have experienced actual healing.
Restorative Justice may not work for every person and every scenario but it’s important for people to know that there are other options besides the dichotomy of engaging versus not engaging the criminal justice system.
There are several RJ programs in the region. Locally, the California Conference for Equality and Justice (www.cacej.org) can work with individuals and communities to address conflict under a restorative justice framework.
Born at St. Mary Hospital, Miles McNeeley has lived in Long Beach for over 30 years. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Cal State Long Beach and works in the field of translational research at the University of Southern California. He is a commissioner and the former chair of the Long Beach Human Relations Commission.