Matthew R. Golde is the supervising Assistant District Attorney in charge of the Juvenile Division of the Alameda County District Attorneys Office. He works with a variety of community-based organizations, public officials, and law enforcement officers, and is a member of the task force creating a collaborative restorative justice court in the juvenile justice system.
When the “cold call” email about restorative justice showed up in my inbox, I thought, “Here we go again.” Yet I replied. I attended all the meetings. I read the book about restorative justice in New Zealand. I went to the trainings. Then I was told to deliver cases involving violence to this unknown (and very impressive) group. I had never heard of restorative justice in my educational or professional life.
This was my “forced” introduction to restorative justice. I had been a deputy district attorney for 29 years and worked in our juvenile division for 13 years. I handled all types of cases, from minor thefts to murder. I regularly read the latest juvenile justice journals and kept up on promising new ideas—many endorsed as “evidence-based practices.”
Somehow, though, this felt different. For quite a while I had felt frustrated by the lack of ideas and creativity to help youth who commit crimes. We needed to protect our community from danger, but the traditional system was marginal at best, out of ideas, and generating sub-par outcomes.
So I jumped in with my eyes wide open. I saw talented advocates trying to help the minors AND protect our community. They insisted the offenders take full responsibility for their criminal conduct—no legal technicalities, no legal motions to keep out evidence of guilt, no courtroom trickery or antics. At the same time, jails, probation officers, and criminal records were avoided. Minors and their families were supported in whatever intervention everyone (including the minor) deemed appropriate. Importantly, the feelings of the crime victims as well as the harms to the community were valued and addressed. Everyone was disarmed.
I have attended several “circles” or restorative community conferences. Each time, I left believing the traditional adversarial system is inferior for minors who can continue to live with their parents or guardians. Ultimately, after a period of admission, service, growth, reflection, and directly repairing the harm to the victim, charges are never filed. No criminal record of any kind exists.
Now I yearn for our existing justice system to embrace restorative justice. Our probation departments should pay for and offer restorative justice as an option. Our county probation department budget is almost $100 million per year—surely some could be devoted to restorative justice.
Of course, restorative justice is not for everyone and all cases. We still need jails, courts, judges, district attorneys, and defense attorneys. Some kids pose such a huge danger that a more controlled and public protection response is warranted. Some kids are not ready to take responsibility so early in the process—something that the process requires. However, for a high percentage of our minors, restorative justice is appropriate. Fewer minors would be in our jails, courts, and on probation. Outcomes would be better. Money would be saved.
It took me a while to fully embrace restorative justice. When I finally arrived as an open cheerleader and advocate, one judge affectionately introduced me as a healthy skeptic … I couldn’t agree more.