Program offers chance at a clean slate

About three-quarters of the Restorative Justice Community Action program’s U-area cases involve alcohol violations.

Haley Madderom

When University of Minnesota students commit misdemeanors like theft, underage drinking or disorderly conduct, they often pay the fine without realizing there’s an alternative.

“By sending in the money, you are pleading guilty,” said Mark Karon, attorney and director at University Student Legal Service. “And then not only do you have an arrest record, but you now have a criminal record.”

For students who have committed crimes, usually alcohol-related ones, the Restorative Justice Community Action program offers them the chance to have their case dismissed and down the line have their arrest record expunged or hidden from the public eye, Karon said.

Close to 40 percent of RJCA’s nearly 300 scheduled participants during the 2014 fiscal year were from the University area.

RJCA currently only works with students who have committed victimless, neighborhood-related crimes in Minneapolis, said the program’s executive director, Cynthia Prosek.

The program, she said, improves the city’s livability by reshaping criminal behavior not through punishment, but by connecting offenders with their community.

Participants who have been ticketed for crimes like possession of drug paraphernalia and public urination, once accepted to RJCA, have a face-to-face conference with community members. Together, they establish a plan to make amends in the neighborhood where the crime was committed.

Within a two-month period, they must complete tasks ranging from picking up trash, donating books to area schools or even writing apology letters to police officers.

“They can let go of the shame or the sense of guilt for that incident because they are meeting with people, having a conversation,” Prosek said.

And because about three-quarters of RJCA’s cases in the University area are alcohol-related, she said a lot of those conversations center around safe drinking in University-area neighborhoods.

“A lot of times the conversations are about, ‘How are you taking care of yourself?’” she said. “When you are intoxicated like that, you’re alone, you’re more vulnerable to people who want to steal from you. … [Community members] really care about them more than just, you know, ‘You’re causing us a problem.’”

Karon said most students who enroll in RJCA end up completing the program.

University police Sgt. Jim Nystrom supervises his department’s Coordinated Response Team, which works to crack down on campus-area alcohol violations. He said that in the past, he has received letters from student RJCA participants.

“Some are certainly written, it feels like, for the sake of fulfilling program requirements, but there are many that are very heartfelt,” Nystrom said. “It gives the students, I think, a chance to restart.”

But sometimes, Nystrom said, he questions whether the RJCA could be too soft on certain offenders.

“You always wonder, ‘Is that enough?’” he said. “Is that a big enough sting to keep a person from doing that again?”

As enrollees at a public institution, University students have a “dual responsibility” to both the school and the state, said Sharon Dzik, an RJCA board member and director of the University’s Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity.

Even if they get their records expunged, students still may face repercussions for violating the University’s student conduct code, Dzik said. For example, she said, they could be sanctioned with a change in class standing or a compulsory alcohol audit.

“If it gets expunged from their criminal record, that doesn’t mean it gets expunged from ours,” she said.

Prosek said a partnership with Metro Transit and the city of St. Paul is in the works to address fare evasion on public transportation like the Green Line light rail as soon as early 2015.

She said RJCA is actively looking to obtain funding to grow its three-person staff and working to increase its exposure, geographic area and number of participants.

University Relations currently subsidizes about a quarter of the cost of each individual in RJCA, Prosek said. Her program also recruits a few student volunteers each semester to participate in conversations with offenders, help organize events and conduct campus outreach.