Reprinted with permission of JTA. Visit www.jta.org.
LOS ANGELES, Oct. 9 (JTA)--The slightly built, 13-year-old Latino boy sitting in the Starbucks café near downtown Los Angeles doesn't know much about teshuvah, the Jewish notion of repentance.
But it lies at the heart of L.A.'s Jewish Community Justice Project, and it kept this scared kid with the tremulous smile from a likely stint in juvenile boot camp for throwing rocks at a police car.
Instead of coming before a judge, the boy was brought face-to-face with the policeman whose car he'd damaged, and in a two-hour meeting facilitated by two trained mediators, he had to tell the cop he was sorry.
Then he had to pledge to make restitution by working a set number of hours for his parents and a local gardening firm to pay $200 for a new car window.
"I felt nervous in that room," the boy admitted. "I told him I was stupid, and not thinking about what I was doing at that moment. He was kind, he was a good person. He told me to thank my parents for raising me."
It was the first time the boy had worked for money, and his mother said he was tempted to keep the first $50 he made.
"But I told him, 'You have to take care of your responsibilities first,' " she said.
The Jewish Community Justice Project is a partner of the Centinela Valley Juvenile Diversion Project, which has been running a victim-offender restitution program in Los Angeles since 1992.
Four years ago, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles funded this joint project between Centinela and two L.A.-based Jewish groups, the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Beit T'shuva, a Jewish recovery program.
According to the agreement, the Progressive Jewish Alliance trains volunteers to mediate in cases forwarded by local law enforcement and juvenile courts. There currently are almost 60 Jewish volunteer mediators.
"The alliance with UJA has been so exciting because they've recruited motivated, dedicated volunteers," says Centinela's executive director, Steve Goldsmith. "The religious component, the education of teshuvah, really keeps the people motivated."
The mediation project is based on the legal concept of restorative justice, according to which offenders must take personal responsibility for their crimes and make restitution directly to those they have offended.
Participants say it dovetails neatly with the Talmudic notion of teshuvah, which specifies that one must seek forgiveness from those one has wronged before asking God's forgiveness, something Jews are meant to do every year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
"Part of teshuvah is attending to what one did, and turning to the person who was hurt or offended, to see whether you can come back to an open relationship with that person and their family," says Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.
Levy helped create the Jewish part of the curriculum--eight hours of Jewish text study on justice and forgiveness--for the volunteer training program.
Daniel Sokatch, director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, says he brought his organization into the program in 2002 when Los Angeles became the nation's murder capital.
"We realized that most of the murders were in the 310 area code, home to most of the Jews who don't live in the Valley," Sokatch says, referring to the San Fernando Valley.
The most affected neighborhoods weren't those where many Jews live, Sokatch says, but it's "still our city, and in the words of Jeremiah, you must work for the welfare of the city where you live, and there find your own well-being."
Murderers aren't eligible for mediation. Most of the cases that come to Centinela involve petty theft, vandalism, bullying and similar crimes.
One of the hardest parts of the program is making sure that appropriate cases are referred to them. There were 45,000 youths arrested last year in Los Angeles, Goldsmith says, yet Centinela received only 600 to 700 referrals.
To address that problem, Sokatch says, the next volunteer training program, in early 2006, will include a separate, less intensive track for volunteers who will learn how to shmooze intake cops, visit them every week, bring donuts and coffee and review the docket with them," to ensure that fewer juvenile offenders slip through the cracks.
Jordan Susman, a former television writer and filmmaker, was in Sokatch's first group of volunteer mediators.
"I felt that's what a Jewish organization should do," says Susman, who is now a third-year law student. "It appeals to my Jewish point of view. The juvenile justice system is beyond broken--once you're in the system, you learn how to be a better criminal. This is about breaking that cycle."
Keren Markuze, a documentary television writer, has mediated about a dozen cases since her training last year.
"Jewish law is very big on giving people chances," she says. "Let's do everything we can to make sure the punishment is appropriate, especially when we talk about children."
Jewish law also takes intention into consideration when looking at crime, Markuze notes. She describes one case she mediated, where a boy stole pants, a shirt and shoes from a department store.
During the mediation, the boy confessed in tears that his mother was laid off and couldn't afford to buy him a new school uniform, and he was tired of being humiliated by the other kids at school for his clothes.
"That's an issue of economic justice," Markuze proclaims. "Of course he had to learn that stealing is not a solution, but for him to end up in the conventional justice system would have been tragic."
Restorative justice programs exist in many cities around the world, according to several Web sites devoted to the topic. And it's not about feeling sorry for kids--statistics show that such programs work.
According to the Center for Restorative Justice and Mediation at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, recidivism rates are lower following mediation than following traditional punishment. Some 81 percent of young offenders who participated in mediation complete their restitution to their victims, compared to just 58 percent of offenders who were ordered to do restitution by the courts but who did not sit face-to-face with those they had wronged.
"When you go to court, you're not sitting across from your victim, forced to look them in the eye and hear what they have to say to you," Markuze says. "It's very powerful."
Susman says he has his young offenders "do the math" to figure out the number of jobs lost because of crimes like theirs every year in Los Angeles. When they realize it's their parents and friends who are losing those jobs, it "really affects them," he says.
In the L.A. mediation project, Goldsmith says, about 70 percent of juvenile offenders complete their restitution pledges. He points to a study done by California's supreme court that found the re-arrest rate was half that of young criminals who did not go through mediation.
"It helps divert kids from the court system and it actually shows a pretty good success rate of keeping kids out," says Michael Nash, presiding judge of L.A.'s Juvenile Court. "Not every kid needs to be brought into the court system if there's another way they can be held accountable, make restitution to the victim and develop a sense of responsibility."
The mediators take away something from it as well.
For Susman, who says he and his wife are "always looking for ways to incorporate more Judaism" into their lives, acting as a court mediator "is where my Judaism is expressed existentially, through the actions I do."
Markuze says she often "feels ambivalent" after a mediation, "because there's so much more we as a society could be doing."
Sometimes she feels the juveniles "aren't really contrite." But overall, she says, "I feel good I've given someone a chance to make amends."
The next volunteer mediator training session will be held in the spring. For information, contact www.pjalliance.org.