Residence halls get new kind of justice

The restorative justice program gives students options on resolving tickets.

Emma Carew

The restorative justice program has helped more than 900 students in the University area to get alcohol-related charges dismissed since 2004.

Under a federal Department of Education grant, the University is working with Restorative Justice Community Action to bring a similar program to the residence halls this year.

The pilot program, which began in the spring, will run through the end of the current school year, University restorative justice community coordinator Barbara Banks said.

At the end of the year, she and others working on the program will present their suggestions and findings in hopes of receiving funding for a permanent program in the residence halls.

“We’re focused in the residence halls, for (University of Minnesota Police Department) cited offenses only, and alcohol related offenses,” Banks said, “All of those have to exist for a person to be offered our program.”

If students are cited for an alcohol-related offense in the residence halls by the UMPD, their citation includes an insert with information about the restorative justice program, Lt. Troy Buhta said.

A student has three business days after receiving their citation to apply for the restorative justice program and “get the wheels turning,” he said.

Restorative justice means that instead of letting a case go through the criminal court system, the offender meets with members of their community and together they work out an agreement of how to repair the harm, Banks said.

“From what I’ve seen, offenders listen more to peers, versus me, an old guy telling them to behave,” Buhta said. “I think it affects them more, and puts a face to who (the behavior) is bothering.”

Rather than “just being the bad police” the conferences give officers the opportunity to explain how a drinking incident can tie up police and medical resources; resources that might be needed elsewhere, he said.

“The lights kind of come on,” Buhta said, “and they realize how many people that they affect.”

RJCA expanded its work in the neighborhoods to include the 2nd precinct (Marcy Holmes, Prospect Park, University of Minnesota, and Southeast Como neighborhoods) in October 2004.

The program was a success and grew rapidly, Buhta said. Last year they began to implement the program in the residence halls.

“We began planning and strategizing a way that we could do this new program,” Banks said, “so that the community conferences were representative of the residence hall community, rather than the off-campus community.”

In addition to her work coordinating the offenders and conferences, Banks is also doing research to see what kinds of restorative justice programs exist in other schools.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many schools have been implementing restorative justice in some way,” she said.

Some schools, like the University of Colorado at Boulder, have a program similar to the University’s, while other schools, such as University of Michigan, have added restorative justice principles to their existing judicial process, Banks said.

Three community conferences were scheduled for fall semester, although the September date has been canceled due to lack of participants, Susan Stubblefield, assistant director of Housing and Residential Life, said.

The goal of the program “is providing students an opportunity to have an educational experience about the behavior associated with having a ticket,” she said.

The incentive for students to go through restorative justice, Banks said, is to have the fine and charges dismissed from the case.

The fine for a minor consumption citation (the most common ticket cleared through restorative justice) is $175 – 80 percent of which goes to the University police department, Buhta said.

That means in 2006, the UMPD lost out on $36,400 in minor consumption tickets alone.

But, the University police remain supportive of the restorative justice program.

“We’re a university,” Buhta said, “it’s an educational program, so that’s what it’s all about. It’s never about the money.”

Students who successfully complete the restorative justice program also have the option to have the charges on their record expunged, said Mark Karon, director of Student Legal Services.

“What students have to be concerned about is the collateral consequences that go along with any kind of criminal charge,” Karon said. “If you pay the (fine), it’s the same as pleading guilty.

“If you apply for a job or anyone does any kind of background search, they will find that on your record,” he said. “Even though it’s a minor thing, it could prevent them from getting a job.”

The process of restorative justice is unique in the way that it works to reintegrate the offender into the community, Banks said.

“It’s not a shame and blame, it’s not pointing fingers,” she said, “It’s not meant to be punitive; it’s not a punishment.”