Every successful mediation has a turning point. It may follow a youth’s powerful identification with the experience of those they impacted, or sudden compassion felt for the young person by the impacted party. In this VORS case, this special moment came after hours of exchanges between parties speaking from hardened positions, in different languages.
Sixteen-year-old Roberto was facing arrest for a burglary and vandalism of a discount store located in South Los Angeles. He and a friend had engaged in a destructive after-hours spree, which resulted in store damage and inventory losses estimated between $5,000 and $15,000. Subsequently taken to the Sheriff’s station, Roberto could have been charged with felony burglary and vandalism. Instead, he was given the option of restorative justice diversion with Centinela Youth Services (CYS). Roberto and his family chose the opportunity to make things right through CYS’s agreement with the LA County Sheriff’s Department to divert eligible offenses from arrest and into community-based restorative justice services.
The store’s manager, Sophia, was the harmed party in this case. When briefed by CYS case managers on what to expect from the process, Sophia made clear her intention of recovering $15,000 from Roberto and his family. Failing that, she would press for Roberto to do jail time. As are many VORS cases in Los Angeles, this was a cross-cultural mediation. CYS secured a Korean translator for Sophia and a Spanish translator for Roberto’s family. In addition to language barriers, cultural factors may present varied perspectives on appropriate discipline. CYS’s Restorative Justice diversion is attuned to the potential for growth and change in young people, the relevance of a youth’s family and social environment, the circumstances preceding an act of poor or impulsive decision-making and balancing that with the needs of those impacted by the youth’s actions and the obligations the youth may have to repair those harms.
VORS mediations begin with the responsible youth explaining their actions and the thinking behind them. Harmed parties are then asked to recount their experience of the offense, and how it has affected them personally. Roberto began his narrative by apologizing and accepting responsibility for his actions that night and putting his decisions in the context of a life that was at that time, disorganized and misdirected. He reported he had since relocated to another California city to move away from harmful influences.
Unmoved by Roberto’s apology, Sophia held to her position of requiring $15,000 in monetary compensation for the incredible mess, damages and lost product and productivity her business suffered. Knowing this was far beyond the means of his family, Roberto became frustrated and stated a desire to go to jail in order to satisfy Sophia’s demand for justice. Negotiations became tense and seemed at risk of breaking down.
CYS’s trained community volunteer mediators introduced alternatives that might address Sophia’s concern that Roberto would simply repeat the behavior if given a “pass.” They pointed out that restorative justice restitutions are far more effective than court judgments at engaging youth in meaningful service to the victim and community. They also redirected Roberto from a flagging commitment to mediation. Robert noted that, at the time of the incident, he didn’t care much about his life or his future. He shared the belief that this incident was a “wake up call.” He was now asking himself questions like, “What have I done with my life? What am I doing about my future?” Sophia responded with empathy, for the first-time seeing Roberto as a struggling youth rather than a criminal. She withdrew from her hardened position and seemed relieved to do so.
In this new atmosphere of remorse and forgiveness, CYS mediators re-introduced the idea of community service, and the parties suddenly forged an agreement that fulfilled Sophia’s needs for recognition of the harms committed and provided for a personally meaningful restitution. The final agreement included Roberto’s commitment to six months of community service, and a pledge to write a Letter of Apology and a Letter of Reflection on the effects his actions had not only on Sophia and her store, but also her customers, employees, and the community in which they all worked and lived.