Restorative justice offers the hope of diverting eligible youth offenders and putting them on a more productive path. Last week, Lincoln Public Schools and the Lincoln Police Department offered the hope of expanding their own successful program.
Implemented in 2015, Project Restore, which involves a host of community agencies, gives prosecutors some leeway in determining the fate of young offenders and provides an alternative for youth who have committed an offense in a Lincoln middle or high school to make amends to their victims and families outside of the court system.
Rather than entering the often tragic cycle of the juvenile justice system, the young offenders instead engage in a restorative justice program that instills accountability for their actions and helps them understand the impact on victims. It also offers resources for families.
Initially, the LPS program was only for high school students. In its first expansion, it took in middle schools and created a similar program for students with substance-abuse issues.
The main objective is to intervene early when young people make mistakes, so they stay out of the court system. In addition to providing a process that encourages them to take steps towards feeling reinstated as a respected member of the school community, Project Restore as an early intervention also has the potential to positively affect the graduation rate of youth offenders.
Minority students have been in the majority of those participating in Project Restore, which is a direct reflection of the racial and ethnic disparity among youths heading into the juvenile justice system. Often facing higher hurdles than their classmates, students of color can use this chance to get back on track.
And getting back on track pays dividends down the line for all of society. Every inmate behind bars contributes to our prison overcrowding emergency and to the serious fiscal and legal discussions that must take place. Many of them started on the paths that lead to incarceration as children and teens.
Restorative justice isn’t without out its risks. Not every intervention story will provide a happy ending. Not every young offender will accept responsibility and make amends. Not every victim will find justice satisfactory.
Above all, an expanded restorative justice program requires smart, compassionate and wise administrators, committed families and engaged community organizations who put collective student safety first and individual offender rehabilitation a close second.
But society stands to benefit, too – in the short term by creating an inclusive learning environment and in the long haul by short-circuiting the school-to-prison pipeline that can deprive society of a productive soul. Every effort should be made to invest in Project Restore.
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