Juvenile Restorative Justice program offers a chance to make it right
Clackamas County's Restorative Justice program focuses on creating local community service opportunities for youth offenders, offering not only a chance to directly repair the harm they've caused but also to form positive new connections in the process.
For the program to work as intended, though, it's critical that youth are able to find opportunities close to home, and that's why Clackamas County has been pushing to expand the program and develop new opportunities in cities throughout the county — including Lake Oswego.
"We have about 48 partners across the county, and we try to have some in each municipal area so that kids in their local city can give back," says Juvenile Department Assistant Director Mark McDonnell. "We're developing new partnerships in Lake Oswego, and we have a good relationship with the Lake Oswego Police Department."
That relationship has been strengthened recently thanks to the efforts of LOPD Officer Dawn Pecoraro, who has been working to connect county officials with community members who can set up volunteer opportunities. She says she became involved a little over a year ago, when she responded to a call involving a group of young adults in one of the city's parks.
"I asked if they'd ever been on probation, if they'd ever been in trouble," she says. "I was just trying to get a feel for how we respond (when it is) juveniles doing this stuff — are they held responsible at all?"
Juvenile cases in Lake Oswego are generally referred to the Clackamas County Juvenile Department, she says, and local police rarely see what happens next. But in this case, Pecoraro reached out to the county and began to learn more about its Restorative Justice program from Tanya Cramer, the program's supervisor, and Rachel Pearl, the program's community connections coordinator.
"The Restorative Justice program was interesting to see — it gave me a different perspective for my job as well," Pecoraro says. "The process and programs they offer are really fantastic, I think, coming from law enforcement and being a parent. It's holding (youth) accountable, but in a positive manner."
But she says she also learned that county officials were having a hard time finding enough local connections to expand the program in Lake Oswego, so she began working with them — sometimes to create service opportunities such as a car wash last summer, but more often just to put them in touch with people involved in city events, such as Lake Oswego Sustainability and Management Analyst Jenny Slepian.
"I thought it was great," Slepian told The Review after a recent event where juvenile offenders helped out. "The kids that showed up were really helpful — they worked hard and were really engaged with what they were doing."
For county officials, it was a great opportunity to increase the program's presence in Lake Oswego, which is one of the goals to help serve local juvenile offenders. The program focuses on youth who have committed offenses that would be considered crimes if they were over 18, as well as violations of youth-specific laws such as possession of alcohol by a minor.
"If youth don't have a community service partner in their community, then they end up doing it in another community," Cramer says. "That's not the goal, and there can be transportation barriers. We saw Lake Oswego as an area that didn't have as many opportunities six months ago, so that city and a couple others have been identified as areas to create options for the youth that we serve in the community."
The local focus is an essential part of the Restorative Justice model, officials say, because the program views youth offenders as having harmed their relationship with their community.
"In this case, we look at the community as being an indirect or sometimes a direct victim, depending on the circumstances," Pearl says. "Youth that live in Lake Oswego and have committed a crime in Lake Oswego have created an obligation for themselves to repair the harm that they've caused."
Even more important: the impact of the events on the participating kids. By joining the community in completing a task, the young offenders are able to develop a sense of ownership in their community, McDonnell says — and that newfound connection will help discourage them from causing harm to the community in the future.
"They're building relationships," Cramer says. "They're seeing what they're worth and what they're able to do, and they're understanding their strengths and having adults give them positive feedback."
Rather than creating events from scratch, the goal is to try to connect kids with existing opportunities, and officials say Lake Oswego is well-suited for that approach because of its frequent park stewardship work parties, the Farmers Market and other public city events. In other cities, Cramer says events have included volunteering at food banks or with programs such as Fill a Stocking, Fill a Heart, which provides Christmas stockings to low-income clients.
"It needs to be something that has a community benefit — working for a nonprofit, or a local municipality, or a state organization," Pearl says.
The key, she says, is that the participants are able to see the positive impact they're having on the community, and receive positive reinforcement from the adults who are involved.
"It's really important that the adults see them as young people that have potential and strength and acknowledge what they do well, rather than some of the old-school mentality of, 'This is your consequence, you're a bad kid,'" Cramer says. "That doesn't help them move forward. What we've found time and time again is that when they're lifted up, encouraged and welcomed, that is a game-changer for these kids."
Pecoraro says the process moved slowly at first, but the city and county are finding more and more partners to set up new events.
"It's awesome — I'm really excited for it all the way around," Pecoraro says. "We have this great city here where we could have so many opportunities for kids — and it benefits everybody."