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Keeping Youth Out of Prison

September 21, 2018

By Marielena Castellanos

Keijuan was the youngest speaker on a recent panel discussion about restorative justice at the Dojo Café in City Heights.

The 15 year old is also a beneficiary of efforts that have led to the expansion of such programs. A year-and-a-half-ago, he found himself in trouble, but instead of facing law enforcement, he was offered a chance to make things right for all those affected.

“If it wasn’t for the program, I would be locked up,” Keijuan said. During the discussion, he credited Robert Ontiveros, the mentor coordinator with the National Conflict Resolution Center and Community Wraparound for looking out for him and because they, “Made sure I stayed out of trouble.”

Now Keijuan is showing the world how restorative justice programs can help youth stay out of prison. He’s also playing baseball, a skill he learned when he was three years old.

Helping young people like Keijuan is one of the reasons several leaders met at the Dojo Café, which also serves as a community meeting space in City Heights.

Several community leaders gathered together to look for ways to get more people involved on restorative justice efforts to help youth in the region stay out of prison.

The meeting was organized by members of Mid-City CAN’s Peace Promotion Momentum Team, which supports restorative justice as an alternative to address delinquent behavior by involving the youth responsible for the crime, the victim, and the community.

“Everyone say ‘word’,” Tayari Shorter, one of the cofounders of the Dojo Café, said as he welcomed everyone who came out for the conversation.

Shorter also opened up with a poem he wrote when he was younger, a lot more militant, “Dealing with the system.”

His poem began, “Barely holding on like the disenfranchised in accordance to Jim Crow blueprints we survived due to cervically placed stints within a system of domination. Stints in the form of hope that there will actually be change, and with it an attempt to enlighten the masses.”

He also shared how he got involved with restorative justice work, recalling one day when he was working at the Dojo Café and someone ran off with his tip jar. It was in October of last year after the coffee shop had just opened.

“I saw the look on his face, I saw myself in his youth, together we walked back into the Dojo, I told him of the work we are doing, and that he was the type of person we are here for,” Shorter said.

Shorter said he had time to reflect, had he called the police, “I’d just be doing what a lot of people do, putting him into the system at a young age. I didn’t want to do that because I think about what that would be for me at a young age.”

Shorter is new to restorative work, but he recognizes the need.

This week, the Sacramento Bee reported a new study concluded that California students still experience wide disparities in the number of days different racial and ethnic groups are suspended. The study found 11 percent of Latino students are suspended for 25 days or more.

Disparities for many groups have improved, including Latino students, but there is still more to be done.

Five years ago, Felicia Singleton, who was also on the panel, told the crowd she was challenged to reduce suspensions and expulsions, a task she thought would be easy, but soon saw problems.

Once she learned about restorative justice, she looked for ways to make it work at local schools which she described as, “Within a system that was punitive.”

Singleton said the traditional school system doesn’t allow space for conversations.

“It is ‘if you did this then you go home.’ There’s no conversation between the two parties. No room for healing.”

“So my pitch was how do we want our students to come back to us? Do we want them to come back the same way that they left? No because then they will do it again. And we’re becoming the vehicle that’s shoving them down the school to prison pipeline,” Singleton said.

Singleton attended restorative classes, workshops, “I became hungry for it.”

She added initially it was meant to be a pilot program but, “When I could see the comfort in the eyes of the parent whose child has been marginalized pushed out for so long, when they had an opportunity to do something different, (for her) it became about doing whatever I could to ensure that didn’t go anywhere.”

Singleton is now an adjunct professor and teaches a restorative justice course to criminal justice students, “The first day of class is the toughest, they feel like there is no place for it, but once they experience it, I’m a firm believer that you have to experience restorative work, you need to be with, in the with box.”

Last year the San Diego Union Tribune (SDUT) reported that juvenile crime rates were down as a result of new approaches to address crimes by young people. The SDUT also reported data compiled by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) showed the juvenile arrest rate in the county went down 53 percent from 2011 to 2015.

On the panel was also Sean Elo, director of campaigns and policy with Mid-City CAN, who began speaking by saying the justice system was operating as it was designed to operate.

“You can’t have a discussion about justice without talking about slavery and institutional racism. It’s been in the works for years. It’s important to recognize, it won’t be resolved overnight.”

Elo explained there is a San Diego legislator who has said, “Poor or oppressed people get programs and powerful people get policies.”

He also said a bill on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk right now would stop students in kindergarten through third grade from getting suspended over willful defiance, which means to disobey.

Elo also wants to see legislative budgets include funding for training for police officers who participate in restorative justice programs.

Organizers of the panel discussion said the meeting is the first of more to come in the coming weeks.

Elo ended his comments with a call to action referencing Mid-City CAN’s Peace Promotion Momentum Team, who meet once a month to talk about creating a better system.

He told the crowd, everyone has the opportunity to join.

“They’re about to embark on imagining an even better future. There’s no limit to what can be done. We need folks like you to get together with folks who are already doing the work to start imagining that better future, and then we pass the policies to make sure again, we change the system and make sure it no longer operates how it has for so, so long.”

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