Mid-City Program That Addresses School-To-Prison Pipeline Looks To Expand
Recent high school graduate Pamela Sareth is off to cosmetology school this fall. The 17-year-old says she’s looking forward to following her love of nails, makeup and hair styling, but a few months ago she might have been on different path after she hit her nephew's father during an argument.
She could have faced criminal prosecution but instead she went through restorative community conferencing or RCC. It brought Sareth and her nephew’s father together so she could admit her mistake and they could work toward a resolution.
"I got frustrated, I started crying," Sareth said. "But there’s always light at the end of the tunnel, so from then on out, it was like, 'OK this is over with. I’m glad nothing had happened worse.'"
Sareth is one of 84 youth accused of certain crimes who completed the program to avoid or clear charges. The City Heights-based nonprofit Mid-City CAN spearheaded the initiative in 2014 to counter the school-to-prison pipeline, especially for black and Hispanic youth. The law enforcement-endorsed program is limited to certain ZIP codes, but members of its steering committee want to bring the service to other communities in the region and have support from the county's top prosecutor.
The program relies on law enforcement and criminal justice agencies, including the public defender's office, district attorney's office, county probation and, most recently, the San Diego Police Department, to refer certain cases involving youth to the National Conflict Resolution Center for conferencing sessions between the offender and person harmed. The sheriff's department and the San Diego Unified Police Department are involved in the program as well, and community members may also suggest cases to be considered.
Aeiramique Blake, who holds the community seat on the RCC steering committee, helps facilitate these meetings between the youth who committed the offense and the person harmed. But even before then, she said each side brings their relatives or friends to meet separately with the facilitators so the victim can be supported and the offender can identify why they broke the law in the first place.
"We’ll bring in a supporter who potentially is in the field that they want to work in who maybe can get them back on track, if it’s a counselor, a mental health — whatever is needed, we assess the situation and that’s who comes into that space," Blake said.
After the facilitated meetings, the victims help craft an action plan for the youth. For example, Blake said one program participant's action plan focused on music, because the victim knew they were passionate about it.
"I have a cousin who owns a record label and was able to bring him to that and record a song — we literally have a song together — and that was part of his action plan," said Blake, who herself has been arrested multiple times for protesting issues around criminal justice.
Organizers say restorative community conferencing has been successful, and those who complete it are less often re-arrested, but that’s based on a limited number of participants.
National Conflict Resolution Center President Steven Dinkin acknowledged the small sample size but said the results were promising and he expects that to continue.
“These are initial numbers, but I think it’s trending in the right direction and...the statistics that we’re finding are really what we’d expect or even exceeding it,” Dinkin said.
But the program does not work for everyone. Some youth don’t accept responsibility or the victim may prefer charges go forward.
Right now, the program only applies in City Heights, Barrio Logan, Southeastern San Diego, Lemon Grove and Spring Valley, but at a recent committee meeting, Lisa Weinreb from the District Attorney’s Office Juvenile Division said it could be beneficial to refer cases from other communities.
"A lot of them are not in the ZIP code, and there are many parts of this county that absolutely need this opportunity," Weinreb said.
The committee agreed to explore which communities and agencies would be interested and to identify funding opportunities. A grant from The California Endowment supports the current program.
District Attorney Summer Stephan earlier this month authored a letter supporting an expansion.
For 17-year-old Sareth, the restorative community conferencing process left a lasting impact and helped her better channel her anger.
"I don’t bottle it up, but I talk it out instead of just yelling and saying all types of stuff I don’t mean,” she said.
Part of her action plan was to be a peer mentor for other youth through the community conferencing process. She has since participated in other restorative justice opportunities, including a recent group discussion where youth and law enforcement were asked if they believe police brutality occurs.
"Yes, I believe it exists only because we don’t know how to communicate with one another," Sareth said.