When people get convicted of a crime, it follows them throughout their life, but that conviction rarely invokes change.
“As time has gone on in the criminal justice system and attitudes have changed, there’s been a shift for penal consequences for lower-level offenses,” Santa Barbara County District Attorney John Savrnoch said. “Instead of getting them a criminal conviction, let’s try to make them a part of the community.”
The DA’s Office hopes to do this through the new Neighborhood Restorative Justice Program—an approach that takes people who have committed low-level misdemeanors out of the court system and puts them into a facilitated conversation to address the crime and the person’s motivations, hear from victims, and discuss ways to move forward, Savrnoch said.
“Community service is a big part of it. Basically, throughout the process we try to connect them to people, places, community organizations,” he said. “Rather than to stick them with a conviction, stick them with some more consequences that are designed to change their actions in the future.”
The program first launched for adults in 2021 in Goleta as a project between then DA Joyce Dudley and former 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart, Savrnoch said. Funded by the Community Corrections Partnership in partnership with Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley, Savrnoch said he wants to expand the Neighborhood Restorative Justice Program countywide, with a path now available to South County, and hopes to have it up and running in North County by September.
“Individuals don’t get saddled with conviction, but they get a sense of belonging they never had,” he said. “They have an opportunity to do some introspection to the harm their actions caused.”
Restorative justice is not a “one-size-fits-all solution” and may not be suitable for all crimes or offenders, Chief Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Karapetian told the Sun via email. The office will focus on diverting low-level misdemeanor offenses—petty theft, underage possession of alcohol, or public intoxication—from entering the criminal justice system.
“The purpose of the program is to reduce recidivism by understanding why offenders offend, address the harm the offense had on the victim (if applicable) and the community, and, using restorative principles rather than punitive principles, effectively and efficiently restore the local community, victim, and the offender back into the community,” Karapetian wrote.
When a crime involves a victim who wants to participate in the program, the restorative approach can offer “significant advantages” over the traditional court system, she added.
“[Neighborhood Restorative Justice Project] provides a platform for victims to express their needs, ask questions, and receive direct answers from the offender,” Karapetian said. “This process can lead to emotional healing, closure, and a sense of justice that may not always be achieved in the adversarial setting of a courtroom.”
Santa Barbara County looked to Yolo County as an example when starting its program. Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Resig launched Neighborhood Courts—now known as the Restorative Justice Partnership—in 2013 to provide an alternative to traditional prosecution, according to a March 2022 report by the Urban Institute.
Yolo County’s program started in Davis and was initially used for minor alcohol offenses, but as time passed the program expanded throughout the rest of the county as recidivism rates dropped, according to the report.
Both misdemeanors and felonies are now eligible for its restorative justice program on a case-by-case basis and “major felonies” are excluded, according to the study.
“Approximately 10 to 15 percent of felonies and 20 percent of misdemeanors are diverted to the program. Three-quarters of all referred cases successfully complete the program,” the report read. “With the aid of volunteers from the community, one interviewee said the program has also resulted in a 37 percent reduction in recidivism.”
For Santa Barbara County’s program, the DA’s Office contracted with UC Santa Barbara psychology professor Jill Sharkey to conduct an external evaluation of the program to gain a better understanding of its effectiveness. Sharkey has worked on research projects in the past that looked at how systems can better support vulnerable youth and has crossed the restorative justice topic over the last 20 years.
Through an optional survey with open-ended questions, Sharkey and the DA’s Office want to see if people enjoyed the process, if they come back to the system, and if people found closure because they got resources and referrals through this healing process, she added.
“We’ll be tracking all of the numbers, and then we want to know if people complete their agreements and their assessments, if it’s equally beneficial for a man and a woman, and if it’s better than past [recidivism] rates when we didn’t do restorative practices,” Sharkey said.
Recidivism rates take three years to analyze, so the evaluation won’t have that information until later but can use the feedback forms to identify patterns in the responses, she said.
“It’s really hard in the criminal justice system when our main indicator of success is recidivism,” Sharkey said. “We have things we haven’t measured: How is this person feeling after this? If they are feeling better off, that’s amazing. We’re able to have a healing process after this harm, connect them to social support—these are things the criminal justice system hasn’t done a good job of measuring.”
While this is the first adult restorative justice program in Santa Barbara County, schools and the juvenile system have been using this model for years, said Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley Executive Director Edwin Weaver.
“In 2015, 2016, there was a meeting [about] conflict in the schools and what we could do to help high school students to learn to resolve conflict in a way that’s healthy, where they learn community, and it reduces violence on campus,” Weaver said. “We suggested we try something other districts have tried, which is a restorative approach.”
Through this approach, students learn that relationships have been broken and they may have caused harm for a classmate or a teacher, and it brings the two parties together with a trained mediator.
“Instead of young people only getting suspended with no chance to have dialogue, this allows the young person to examine their role in the situation and what harm they did and know that it wasn’t OK, and repair the harm,” Weaver said.
Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley partners with the schools to oversee the restorative approach, and trains mediators to run the meetings in order to reduce student conflicts on campus with their peers, teachers, or faculty, he said. He said the program has been beneficial for students and that it could transfer over into the adult criminal justice system.
“Schools are a microcosm. They are a community, and we’re a community. Most crime is a person hurting another person in some way, and part of the solution needs to be, if possible, a reconciliation and repair of that relationship,” Weaver said.
Fighting Back will provide training for volunteers to work on the Neighborhood Restorative Justice Project where they can become panelists or a facilitator for the conversations. After one day of training, volunteers can observe other panels taking place and then, once they are ready, they can join a panel with the potential to become a facilitator.
“In the end we all want a safe community; we are willing to try things in order to create that safe community,” Weaver said. “I think there’s a lot of eyes on this idea of the criminal justice system: Are we spending money the right way? Are we doing right by the victims and holding offenders accountable?”
Reach Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor at [email protected].