Thanks to the advancements made by Philadelphia’s Police School Diversion Program, the Philadelphia School District is considered a model for youth restorative justice. However, the program features a key limitation of many restorative justice programs nationwide: These services are not offered to every student — only to those with low-level, victimless offenses, leaving more severe offenders without support.
As other cities have proven, restorative justice conferencing can provide an avenue for all youth to avoid jail — while also making victims and their families feel whole.
The current model for youth justice in Philly schools was pioneered by the School District’s chief of school safety, Kevin Bethel, who founded the Police School Diversion Program in 2014, when he was a deputy police commissioner. That was the era of “no-tolerance” disciplinary policy in schools, intended to keep weapons out of classrooms — but it had grown to encompass a variety of lesser, even innocent, infractions whose consequences could be devastating.
Facing arrest at a young age has collateral consequences, including expulsion from school (which can prevent students from pursuing secondary education), higher risk of developing mental health issues, and increased likelihood of being found guilty later on. Sometimes, applications to get crimes committed while under 18 expunged from a permanent record are not approved in Pennsylvania.
Philly has already become a national model for restorative justice, so why don’t we take it one step further?
Bethel created the Police Diversion Program, in partnership with the School District, to create an alternative that addressed the underlying causes of students’ behavior.
This is how it works: After an incident is reported and investigated at school, the offending student is sent back to class — rather than suspended — while arrangements are made for them to enter the program. They are then given a letter stating that they have been “diverted” from the juvenile system, which is also sent home to their parent or guardian.
Within the week, a social worker from Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services, sometimes accompanied by an officer, visits their home and assesses the needs of the family. They interview both the student and their family in order to identify any underlying issues at home, or psychological challenges, that may have informed the student’s behavior. Bethel explains that issues commonly plaguing families range from food insecurity to substance abuse among family members.
The diversion program has been hugely successful in reducing the quantity of in-school arrests per school year. In 2014, Philadelphia school police officers made shy of 1,600 arrests in school. Last school year, they made just 175. Additionally, students who were diverted had decreased recidivism rates following their school-based arrest. Arrested youth were 1.4 times more likely than diverted youth to be arrested within the five years after their first incident, and they were 1.6 times more likely than diverted youth to be suspended at school within the following year.
“It’s been one of the most treasured things I’ve ever done in my life,” Bethel says.
Since its launch, Philly’s diversion program has been replicated by cities across the state and country. But it could do more.
More offenders, better outcomes
San Francisco’s Make it Right program, launched in 2013 by District Attorney George Gascón, goes even further than Philly’s diversion program by widening the lens to include more severe infractions, including those involving a victim. It sets out to promote healing for all involved in the crime, from the offender to the victim. Make it Right also takes in cases that were committed outside of school, and ones where the victim was an adult.
The program was formed through a partnership between the District Attorney’s office and youth justice nonprofits Community Works and Huckleberry Youth, and runs entirely through the DA’s office — with no police involvement (a conscious choice to keep them out of the restorative space). Rather than prosecuting youth offenders, Community Works facilitates conferences between the offender and the victim, both of whom are allowed to bring along people who support them, including family and friends.
Make it Right is funded through partnerships in the private sector.
Alissa Skog, one of three authors who worked to publish a study on Make it Right and a senior research associate at UC Berkeley California Policy Lab, knows the ins and outs of the process. She explained that Community Works brings in experts trained in facilitation who had done prep work with the youth involved prior to conferencing. These facilitators were trained by Impact Justice Oakland, a leading model organization for youth justice.
The goals of the conferences are for the offender to take full responsibility for their wrongdoing and to decide on a mutually agreed-upon plan with steps that the offender can take to address the harm they have caused, centered around the victim’s wants and needs. Some common steps that have been decided through conferencing include writing apology letters, completing community service, and paying restitution.
For example, if an offender stole another kid’s phone, a stipulation could be that the offender gets a summer job to pay for a replacement. As with Philly’s program, Make it Right also addresses other issues in the child’s life. If they struggle in school, Community Works might seek out a tutor, set attendance requirements that they are expected to uphold, and commit to raising grades. If family issues are causing stress in the kid’s life, the program may find a family therapist to speak with the child.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to restorative justice. That’s why the Make it Right program tailors each plan to both individuals involved in the crime. For example, Skog recalls a plan that involved an offender who had a passion for creating art and a victim who was a huge Disney fan. The mediator decided on a plan for these two that would be mutually beneficial: On a wall in their neighborhood, the offender created a Disney mural in honor of the student he had harmed.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to restorative justice.
Completing projects like these, or undergoing family therapy, or attending weekly tutoring sessions are all possible terms of the contracts that Community Works creates for offenders. Huckleberry Youth monitors the agreements to ensure follow-through and then hosts post-conference evaluations after the offender fulfills the terms of the contract.
The results? Drastic drops in rates of recidivism even years after completing the program. Young people aged 13 to 17 who were arrested on felony charges such as burglary, assault, and vehicle theft, were randomly assigned to a control group, who faced standard criminal prosecution, or to the Make it Right program.
While those who followed the traditional course of the justice system reoffended at a rate of 43 percent within the following six months, youth who were diverted to Make it Right reoffended at a rate of 25 percent, almost 20 percentage points less. Even four years later, recipients of restorative justice were still significantly less likely to re-offend.
Why not in Philly?
The primary reason that youth diversion programs across Philadelphia have refrained from grappling with higher-level youth offenders comes down to conflicts with parents, according to Bethel. In crimes that have a youth victim, not only may the victims themselves feel unseen when their offender “gets off the hook” via being diverted to a justice program, the victims’ parents push back. Bethel explains that, “when you move into those victim-based offenses it becomes a more complex conversation. And these are children, so they have parents,” who naturally want their kid’s offender to be held accountable.
Skog, though, argues that the six-month program Make it Right lays out is “not an easy way out” for offenders at all. It requires facing the person you harmed, taking responsibility, and being held accountable. Offenders sign a contract beforehand stating that they will complete the steps of whatever process is agreed upon, and Community Works monitors their progress. But prosecution is still a last resort if a student truly does not take the necessary steps.
And research has shown that parents of victims are more receptive to restorative conferencing when they understand how involved and often difficult the process is. Before putting anyone into Make it Right, the DA’s office contacts the victim, explains the process in full and asks for their consent to go the restorative route. “In 100 percent of the cases,” says Skog, “the harmed party said, We want this case to go to a restorative circle.”
By implementing conferencing programs where victims and their families have a say in the offender’s next steps, not to mention being able to simply speak to them directly in a safe environment, both victims and parents can feel like their voices are heard.
Through combining current programs like the School Police Diversion Program with restorative justice conferencing initiatives, Philadelphia would make strides toward mitigating the school-to-prison pipeline for all of its youth.
Aly Kerrigan is a recent graduate of Central High School and a first-year student at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is studying urban affairs.
MORE SOLUTIONS FOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REFORMPhoto by niu niu on Unsplash