Neighbors look crime in the face

Stephanie Kudrle

Pete Bernardy has heard stories about public urination, drinking and drug sales in the neighborhoods near the University’s West Bank campus.

Bernardy, a public policy graduate student at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, is one of a few students involved with the city’s restorative justice program, which allows community leaders to meet face to face with offenders in their neighborhoods to find punishments.

The community members and the offender

discuss the crime’s impact on the neighborhood and reach a sentence together, rather than taking the case to the courts.

Common punishments include community service or apology letters to the people affected by the crimes.

After volunteering on several committees, Bernardy trained to be a mediator for the program and is also a West Bank community representative.

“(The process) brings people together from different walks of life,” Bernardy said.

The committee typically judges crimes such as underage drinking, noise violation and drug offenses. While most crimes are misdemeanors, some felonies can also be a part of the process.

Southeast Como Improvement Association neighborhood coordinator Greg Simbeck said the Southeast Como and Marcy-Holmes neighborhoods are not in the program yet but are pursuing membership for next year.

Both neighborhoods are near the University and have high student populations.

Simbeck said he expects the restorative justice program to be an effective way to deal with neighborhood drinking and parties.

“It would give both sides a chance to talk to each other,” Simbeck said. “It would give people a better understanding of the effects of their actions and also make them feel more a part of the neighborhood.”

He said the community supports the restorative justice program as a good alternative to fines or jail time.

Gena Gerard, Central City Neighborhoods Partnership Restorative Justice program manager, said about 340 community members are involved with the program and have reviewed 480 cases since the program began in 1997.

“CCNP came together to work on common concerns like crime and felt we needed a better understanding of crime impact and the justice system,” she said. “They also felt there was a lack of consequences for offenders.”

Restorative justice is funded by various foundations and organizations including the Bush Foundation, the Minnesota Department of Corrections and the Minneapolis city attorney’s office.

The program began after a University Center for Urban and Regional Affairs survey found gaps in the city’s criminal justice system.

Gerard said that because resources for penalizing misdemeanor crimes were scarce, many cases had inadequate punishment or were dismissed all together.

“We had tried other methods, but the same offenders kept coming back,” she said. “We needed alternatives and better ways to handle these offenses.”

Gerard also said restorative justice gives community members an opportunity to get involved with livability and crime in their neighborhoods.

In 2002, 99 percent of community members surveyed by Central City Neighborhoods Partnership Restorative Justice Program were satisfied with the process.

Also, 88 percent of offenders committees tried completed their sentences, the survey found. Ten percent re-offended, but Gerard said most did not commit the same offense the program punished.

punished by If offenders working with the program do not complete their punishment, they go back to court.

Bernardy said he enjoys hearing from organizations that give offenders community service and said comments about their work are usually positive.

“Knowing I spent that Tuesday night listening and talking to this person and 15 hours of good came out of it,” he said, “it’s very rewarding.”

Bernardy also said more students should get involved with the process.

“College students are one of the groups that can benefit the most from this,” he said. “They are experiencing and learning new things Ö and these are the people they live with.”