We Treat Kids Like Criminals. We Don't Have To | Sojourners

We Treat Kids Like Criminals. We Don't Have To

The Phoenix Restorative Justice Center helps schools and communities find healthy ways to resolve conflict.
A child sits at a desk with a notebook.
Photo by Mitchell Atencio

IN 1974, TWO teenagers went on a vandalism spree in the quiet community of Elmira, Ontario. They slashed car tires, broke store windows, and destroyed a garden gazebo, racking up about $3,000 worth of damage. The pair faced jail time for malicious vandalism. Instead, their parole officer, Mark Yanzi, who was also part of Mennonite Central Committee in Canada, asked the presiding judge if the youths could meet their victims face to face. This, they said, would allow the offenders to apologize directly and pay for damages. The judge agreed—setting legal precedent in Canada.

Though Indigenous and First Nations communities have a long history of similar conflict resolution practices, the Elmira case is seen as a moment when formalized restorative justice models, known at the time as victim-offender reconciliation programs (VORP), entered the Canadian criminal legal system. And Mennonite Christians were integral from the beginning.

In a 1989 handbook, VORP Organizing: A foundation in the church, Ron Claassen, Howard Zehr, and Duane Ruth-Heffelbower further developed the concept of VORP as a program that could work in cooperation with the judicial system but embodied “different assumptions about crime and punishment.”

“True justice requires that things be made right between the one offended and the one who has done the offending. It embodies a concept of restoration—of victim as well as offender. This also implies personal accountability on the part of the offender, who is encouraged to acknowledge his or her responsibility for the harm, participate in deciding what needs to be done, and to take steps to make amends,” they wrote.

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