Ryan had six prior convictions and lots of contact with the Police. Because Ryan committed his offense with three other teens who all admitted responsibility for what they did, Ryan slipped his way into a community group conference rather than getting a ticket for criminal mischief. In the past six months, since Ryan’s Community Group Conference, he has had no re-contact with the police. All twenty policemen in Ryan’s community know him by his first name and are very happy and surprised not to be picking him up any more. If he had been caught alone, the police said, he would have had another ticket under his belt.

The four teens had launched water balloons into a neighbor’s window until the screen caved in. Then they placed the hose into the window to further douse the inside of the house with water. It was a random thing, done out of boredom, not a personal issue with the neighbor.

Jean, the Community Group Conference coordinator, contacted Ryan to do a restorative pre-conference. She said he was tough, closed up and angry. His parents were totally non-supportive. Ryan’s father said, I will not come to that stupid conference, Ryan has to learn Daddy’s not going to be there to sit beside him for every little thing.

Jean asked Ryan what was going on in his life and what he was interested in. She practiced her deep listening skills and Ryan began to open up as he felt like he was being listened to and heard for once. Someone who asked those questions and responded in a non-judgmental way was a rare circumstance for Ryan. You’re not a bad kid, Jean reassured him. You just made a stupid decision. She asked him about all the prior convictions, Has any of that court experience worked for you? Would you like to try something new? What do you think about sitting in a circle with people who care about you and might be able to help you? These people want you to hear about the harm you caused and give you a chance to make it right.

Ryan came to the circle but his parents did not. Ryan told Jean an adult he trusted that could come and support him in the circle would be Jay’s mom, Pattie. Because Ryan had gotten into trouble with Jay in this water balloon incident, Pattie did not want Ryan at her house any more. Ryan had practically been living at Jay’s house, taking the bus there after school instead of his own house.

As the circle progressed, Pattie was able to see how much Ryan counted on her for help and she recanted, telling Ryan he was indeed still welcome at her home. We will never know how much that compassion and forgiveness meant to Ryan, but we do know that restorative circles build community around offenders and this process has worked for tens of thousands of years in tribal cultures. We suspect that level of caring had something to do with Ryan’s effort to make his life right.

Ryan has very few assets—things going for him that would help him succeed. He has parents who do not respect him or the law and have criminal records themselves. In the strength-based assets survey Jean completed with him on the phone, she discovered he loved music and was quite a good artist. At his school (an alternative school for juveniles on probation), he was an outsider and kept to himself. The reason, he explained, was that all the others smoked cigarettes, did drugs listened to rap music and liked to fight. He didn’t do any of those things and preferred to hide inside his headset playing his music. He didn’t participate unless prodded by a teacher, he showed no emotion, he had no school friends. Ryan was already trying to do some changing by isolating himself and avoiding activities and friends from school who could get him in more trouble.

The Community Group Conference (CGC) that Ryan attended was a timely intervention. It showed him that people did care about him and did appreciate his art and his music. They showed him they cared about his becoming a good adult with good values. Part of his agreement to repair harm to community was to create a piece of art worthy of hanging and hang it in a public place like the recreation center. The GCG was also a way for him to see the harm in his behavior and apologize to those he had directly armed. (The victims did not seek damages stating the water had dried, the window wasn’t broken and the screen just needed to be placed back on.)

After six months with no re-contact with the police, Ryan’s story was considered a success story. In a recent interview, Ryan said he no longer takes the bus to Jay’s house after school because Jay has moved. He takes the bus to work and washes dishes at a busy restaurant from 4pm to 10pm seven days a week. He spends as little time at home as possible and plans to move out when he has enough money. That is why he is working so hard and staying out of trouble, he is turning 18 very soon and needs a good amount of money to set up his own apartment. He said getting in trouble just wasn’t worth it any more, he wanted to have a real life.

Ryan’s life was not turned around simply by the restorative intervention of his CGC. What we do know is that Ryan felt it was time to turn his life around and somehow, somewhere found the courage and the incentive to do it. Circles of caring people can say the right thing at the right time and never know who said what or what was done that made the difference. Was it Jean’s deep listening? Pattie’s forgiveness? Was it sitting in a circle of caring and hearing the impact of his behavior and being avowed to clean it up rather than facing a judge? We will never know for sure. Restorative justice is more art than science. It is based on better future choices and repair of harm rather than punishment for past deeds. Ryan’s future will be brighter because a restorative justice program was there for him at the right time in his life.