Nonprofit helps University students clean up their criminal records

The Restorative Justice Community Action program celebrated its 20th anniversary on Saturday.

by Kelly Busche

University of Minnesota students can expunge low-level crimes from their records by participating in a local community outreach program. 

The Restorative Justice Community Action program offers an alternative to the normal process of going to court or paying a fine when charged with a crime. The program celebrated its 20th year of service Saturday.  

RJCA Executive Director Cynthia Prosek said the anniversary is a milestone because the program is the only one available to adults in the Twin Cities.

Students are advised by University Student Legal Services or the City of Minneapolis to go through the program when cited with misdemeanors or low-level felonies.

RJCA started working with the University, which financially supports the nonprofit, in 2003 to address underage drinking, Prosek said. It has since expanded to include more crimes like minor consumption, public urination, noise citations from parties and more.

The program addresses the crimes through community discussions and volunteering. 

“Our process… is based on behaviors and how it has impacted not only themselves but others,” Prosek said.

RJCA hosts community conferences between students who have been charged and community members impacted by the crime. 

“We’re talking less about if someone’s guilty or innocent, and [having] more just a conversation about what happened,” Prosek said.

Brooke Seaver, a University freshman who works for RJCA, participates as a community member in the conferences.

“Our job is to listen and to communicate how we feel about the situation,” Seaver said.

Prosek said they include the community because “the effect of drinking in the neighborhoods around campus can be very detrimental to [its] livability.”

Seaver said students referred from alcohol incidents quickly realize how their actions impact the neighborhood. 

“It really made them realize that the families in their area were affected because they had to deal with all… the beer cans in the yard, it really opened their eyes to that,” Seaver said.

She added RJCA is more “cohesive” than the traditional legal system because courts don’t reflect on the actions once a punishment is dealt.

“You don’t really have time to process how certain actions could have affected those around you,” Seaver said.

After the conference, the student is referred to volunteer work in the community where the crime was committed, Prosek said.

RCJA volunteer Ardes Johnson works with students assigned to volunteer in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood. 

Students are grateful for the opportunity to clean up their record, rather than go through the traditional legal process, Johnson said.

She said she sees students take more ownership of their neighborhood’s cleanliness when they go through the program.

“They begin to see [Marcy-Holmes] as a neighborhood, not just a student town,” Johnson said. “They become more responsible and conscious of the need to make it a livable area.”