The face-to-face fix

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Since opening its doors seven years ago, the Community Conferencing Center, a Baltimore nonprofit, has offered an alternative way to address crimes and resolve conflicts: Those involved in a dispute are brought together to talk about what happened and agree on a way to apportion responsibility and move on. Unlike traditional mediation, the conferences bring together not just those immediately involved in a conflict but also others affected by it - family members, neighbors, teachers - with typically about a dozen people sitting in a circle with one of the center's six trained facilitators.

Its approach sounds almost too simple, yet the center has been successful at handling neighborhood disputes and juvenile justice cases. The state Department of Juvenile Services refers several hundred cases a year to the center - mostly second-degree assaults, thefts and vandalism. The cases cost the state about $800 per conference, much less than the cost of processing cases in the court system, and the center's data show that youths who go through conferences are far less likely to be arrested again.

The Sun spoke with the center's founder and director, Lauren Abramson, 46, who is also a part-time professor of child psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University.

So, what's the philosophy behind the approach? That it's good to have people airing things out?

It's getting people to do the radical thing of talking to each other. In doing so, they actually connect with people as human beings, as opposed to putting people in categories and deciding they're terrible. The other part is deciding: What can we do to make this better? That's the problem with the Town Hall-meeting type thing, where everybody's bitching at authorities and no specific plans come out of it. It's both the importance of giving people the voice to air it out and then asking them what do you want to do about it. When people make their own decisions about things, they're way more likely to follow them.

Part of why we think this is important is that we think people who cause harm are entitled to an opportunity to learn how to do it differently and do it better. When we punish people, it doesn't tell them what to do, it just tells them what not to do. We think people have a right to learn how to make things better.

You've said you try to reach a point where those in a conference feel "collective vulnerability." What does that mean? That we're all in it together?

Yes, and it's amazing that it does happen, as everyone starts to tell their story and the picture is fleshed out about who has been affected by this, and people recognize we all have a part in this.

We had one where we had neighbors that had called the police on each other like 75 times. There had been a knife incident and a gun incident, and they didn't even know what had started it. When they got together, they realized that one of the girls had said something derogatory months ago about another one's clothes, and it had escalated and the parents got involved.

They're sitting in the circle and screaming at each other, but then, at one point, one mother bursts into tears and says, "I just realized that my cousin was killed last month over something as stupid as what we're arguing about, and if we don't do something right now then someone in this circle is going to be dead." There was a palpable sense of deflation; all that hot air just went pffftt. And in the next 10 minutes, they worked out an agreement which held.

Many people would argue that using this approach for juvenile crimes is being too soft. What's your response?

People hear about it and the first thing they say is, "Oh, that's pretty touchy-feely." The fact is, we've heard from young people that it's much harder for them to do community conferencing than to go through the system, because the system often doesn't have the capacity to provide a meaningful response. A lot of kids think getting arrested and going to court is a joke. There's a very large percentage of cases that never go to court, and another percentage that do and are dismissed. The system's evolved to where young people who are arrested get no response, and then they do something and keep doing that, and then they do something so bad they get incarcerated. We're offering something in between.

What's an example of the kind of resolution that can come out of the conferences?

There was one where a guy whose truck window was broken, and he wanted the kid to go to jail and he wanted money. Well, this kid's parents were divorced, and they went to great lengths to make it to that meeting, and when the guy heard that the kid is on his way to being the first to graduate from high school in that family, he ended up donating his time and money to help that kid. That's our hope for transforming these situations, that people connect with each other as human beings and not "that punk who broke my window." The guy came out feeling totally different.

Is that the only way things can be resolved, with victims turning around and sympathizing? I imagine some people might think, well, if that's what it's all about, then maybe the perpetrators don't feel much responsibility. Do they?

Oh, yeah. We've seen more tears out of people that have caused wrong. It doesn't guarantee that they're going to feel remorse, but I can't tell you the number of times it's happened. We've seen, with really tough, difficult kids, where the coin drops and they realize they're going down a wrong path, and they realize someone cares about them. When monetary restitution comes up, there's an 80 or 90 percent rate getting it through this, where in the courts it's in the single digits.

That whole thing is that with young people in a punitive environment, in order to save face they become worse bad-asses. This way it gives them a chance to save face and to come good. For that kid who's got eight of his neighbors or friends saying, "I really think this is what you should do to make this better," the chances are much greater than with a judge he's never going to see again, saying, "You better do this." It's about rebuilding relationships so people can be accountable to each other and not some designated authority.

You've said community conferencing traces its roots to practices of the Maori people in New Zealand. Why does one have to look to such exotic roots for so common-sense an approach? Why hasn't this been used for years in the U.S.?

It's because we have put experts between us and our problems - whether it's fixing our car or our health care or our conflicts. A lot of people try to own other people's conflicts, whether for power or money: courts, lawyers, human service providers. There's a part of the human services field that has burgeoned and stopped empowering people to figure out what they need for themselves.

Is your staff any different? Aren't you also experts coming into others' disputes?

One of our key principles is transparency about what we do and don't do. We're clear to people up front: What we can do is offer you a way to come together with everyone else affected, and you guys figure out how to make it better. The outcomes and the process belongs to you. We are merely there to set up a structure and give you space to do that.

How did you get involved in this in the first place?

I heard about it at a conference on anger in Philadelphia in 1994. I had done research on how emotions affect health and illness, and it really tied in. When I heard about it, I said, "My God, it can combine my research interests with the work I've done in communities." I'd been working in the community many years before that, doing early childhood and mental health stuff. I grew up in Detroit and became very wedded to Rust Belt communities.

Could this be used for adult offenders? There's a lot of talk about diverting some low-level drug cases from prisons - could you handle some of these with community conferencing?

You could. People think of those as victimless crimes, but that's a foreign concept to me. You may have a grandmother where the dealer's camping out in her house, and she's deeply affected by this. There's certainly neighbors that are affected.

The only thing we won't take is if someone denies they were involved. If there's a crime and somebody says "I have nothing to do with it," then this would not be appropriate.

So are you proposing that community conferencing replace much of the court system as it exists today?

What we're saying is, we need the criminal justice system as it is for only a fraction of the cases that end up there. The courts are an adversarial system - someone's got to win and lose. And that's appropriate for a small number of people and certain kinds of issues. But the rest of them? If you set it up that someone's got to win and lose, people are in fighting mode even when they're allegedly trying to resolve it.

Let's work together and figure out when is it going to serve people better and our state better to use one approach, and when is it going to serve everybody better to do the other. One is really costly, and let's save that for the kind of cases where we really need that level of intervention. The other is much less costly, and it's not going to eliminate crime, but it's going to get us outcomes that reduce need for this stuff in the future.

The center has also explored ways to use community conferencing to help reintegrate people leaving prison. Why?

There are a lot of reentry programs that focus on getting people who are leaving prison ID cards or substance abuse treatment or employment, and that's all really important. But if people don't have a social network of support, then the chances of them succeeding are so much reduced. These are people who often times have burned bridges with their closest family members and friends, and you need to give them a chance to reconnect with those people, to acknowledge what's been done and hear how people have been affected and be able to move forward.

You almost make it sound as if Baltimore's problems are in many ways emotional ones. Not just that neighborhoods are full of drugs. or schools are failing, or there aren't jobs, but that people are suffering on some deep emotional level.

It's all of the above. There are so many structural things that create problems, but beyond that, I can't tell you the number of city blocks with row homes we've gone to where the neighbors have never spoken to each other. It's not healthy for us to live like that. Safe and healthy communities are ones where people are connected.

So, what will it take for the approach to catch on more?

We see people who get what's possible with this, but they have such a sense that the only way to get real justice is to go to court. We ask, "Well, have you ever gone to court. and how did that go for you?" They say, "Aww, it took so long, and I wasn't allowed to participate, and it didn't work out." Why do people still want to go back? I think it's just that it'll take a long time to change our culture.

alec.macgillis@baltsun.com

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