MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Prosecutors here in Washington, D.C., are trying a new approach to handling kids who get on the wrong side of the law. They have launched a program called Restorative Justice. It connects young people with their victims in order to find a way forward. The idea is that justice doesn't always have to involve punishment or retribution. And if the process works, the juvenile offender walks away with a clean criminal record. But as NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, it is not always easy.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible).
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The people gathered in this D.C. government building are here for some important business - problem is the teenager whose life is on the line is nowhere to be found. After nearly an hour, the 16-year-old boy finally arrives. Facilitator Roman Haferd is eager to get started.
ROMAN HAFERD: It's been a bit of a morning - a bit of a scramble this morning. But the good news is that everybody's here.
JOHNSON: They're gathered in a big circle with plenty of chairs. There's one for the young man, another for his foster mom, two more for the older men who mentor him. And then there's the woman he hurt. NPR is not using their names because juvenile proceedings are confidential. Haferd begins by explaining the process.
HAFERD: So Restorative Justice is an opportunity for communities to repair harm and restore relationships yourselves. The purpose here is to have a dialogue about what happened and repair, to the extent possible, the harm that was done by the event.
JOHNSON: Over the next three hours, they'll talk about what happened and why and what should happen next. The boy says he can't explain what he was thinking. He knows he was hanging around with a bad crowd.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A couple months ago, I was a different person. I was hanging with the wrong group.
JOHNSON: The people in this room are patient. They say they want to help him achieve his goals - get into a better high school, find a job. But he's had a tough life, and he doesn't want to grab the hands reaching out to help him.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm making it out here without a team. This is not what y'all understanding. Y'all keep screaming, team. At the end of the day, when I go to sleep by myself, I got me. Any clothes, shoes, anything - support - I get it because I believed in me. Y'all keep screaming, team. I've never had a team. It's not going to make no difference. And I got 16 years in life, bruh (ph), without a team. And I'm going to make it 55 more. I don't believe in friendship. I don't believe in trust. I don't even trust my own mother. I don't trust my own brothers.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Can you allow somebody to help build that trust with you, though?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No, no. My trust was gone when my father and my grandmother died.
JOHNSON: His foster mom, his mentors at school and even the victim insist he has enough time and support to change. The conversation turns to the event that brought them all here. A few months earlier, this boy and his crowd ran into trouble on public transportation. Some people in the group made hostile remarks to a transgender woman. The incident escalated, and the woman was assaulted. That's the same woman who's sitting across the circle from him now, looking through her long eyelashes and waiting for him to talk. The boy slumps in a chair and mumbles, while his foster mom pushes him to continue. He clearly doesn't want to be here.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm doing the best I can. I'm about to leave.
HAFERD: You're doing fine. You're doing fine.
JOHNSON: He begins to explain he didn't want to look like a sucker that day - not for the rest of the school year - then finally this admission.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I ain't no sucker, so I did what I did. I spit on her (unintelligible), you know?
HAFERD: I didn't catch what you just - the last thing you said.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I said I spit.
JOHNSON: Did you catch that? He admits that he spat on her. And the woman he spat on says everyone has obstacles in life. God knows she's struggled mightily as a transwoman.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: You can grow up. And you can change your life. And you can make your money and live the way you want to. And you can leave those things that you've gone through in the past.
JOHNSON: She's frustrated.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I'm always going to have to deal with getting beat up because this is how people feel all the time. In this moment, I'm still feeling like, damn. Like, if this is how people think, how many more times am I going to go through this?
JOHNSON: She says she agreed to come here today because she saw something more in this boy on that bad day on the subway.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: There's something in his eyes that showed, like, fear. It's - he didn't really - like, they were almost like he didn't want him to do it. He didn't leave the situation, like, laughing, like, oh, it was a joke or whatever. It seemed more like, I'm going to do what my friends is doing 'cause this is what we planned to do.
JOHNSON: She says the other young people involved in the attack clearly didn't care about her, but she was willing to take a chance on this one by participating in the Restorative Justice conference. She has one request. She wants this teenager to promise to stand up for LGBTQ people who are getting harassed like she did.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: This was a hate crime. This was something targeted because you guys picked me out because of how you guys identified me.
JOHNSON: The boy asks for everyone to leave the room, except for himself, the facilitator and the victim.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Step out just for a moment. It's OK.
JOHNSON: When they return, they tell me that in two minutes, he apologized, and she accepted. Back in the conference room, Haferd asks how they're feeling. It's been an exhausting day. And he says one hour in a Restorative Justice circle feels like five hours anyplace else. The woman who was hurt says she's happy with the process.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Now I'm at a five. I feel like this was completely successful.
JOHNSON: They agree the teenager will go to school more often and that she will even recommend some potential clients for haircuts since he wants to start a barbering business. There's one more thing the facilitator says, and it's important.
HAFERD: While you're making out these agreements, we're going to make sure your case gets dismissed, OK?
KELLY: That reporting by our justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, who is here in the studio to tell us a little bit more about what happened since.
JOHNSON: Hey there.
KELLY: So what happened to the boy? You ended the piece with his promises of what he was going to try to change. Do you know how he's doing?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I was not sure how this was going to end up. I made some inquiries, and I hear a few months later, this teenager is basically sticking to the agreement he made during that conference. He's found some barbershops willing to take him on and give him some business. He's gotten into a better high school for the fall. And this was really surprising. He's reunited with his biological mother with whom...
KELLY: Oh, wow.
JOHNSON: He has a lot of trust issues. His mom reports they're on pretty good terms. And, Mary Louise, that's kind of the point of this entire Restorative Justice process.
KELLY: Right. Well - which prompts my other question that I had for you. This was all taking place here in D.C. Are other places around the country trying programs like this?
JOHNSON: Yeah. These programs have waxed and waned over the country. Of course, they have deep roots in the tribal community. The difference here in D.C. is that this program operates inside a prosecutors unit.
JOHNSON: And these people are right down the hall from the lawyers who are prosecuting these juveniles. That's a little bit controversial. Some people say there should be a separation. But D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine told me he needed to do it this way to make sure there was buy-in among the prosecutors and also because there wasn't really an existing nonprofit group in D.C. to pick up this work, so his team of seven people are doing it in-house. They hope it will be a model. They hope that other prosecutors will buy in. And increasingly more serious cases are being referred, including assaults on police officers, to this process. They want to expand it moving forward.
KELLY: Wow. And is there any kind of time frame on this or it will run until it's run its course?
JOHNSON: It will run until it's run its course.
JOHNSON: In fact, the AG has asked for more funding from the city council to expand the program.
KELLY: That is NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.
Fascinating story - thank you.
JOHNSON: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.