John Swenning
MCC photo/Silas Crews - 2012

John Swenning, director of restorative justice for West Coast MCC, is committed to helping juvenile offenders mend broken relationships with the community and people they have hurt.

REEDLEY, Calif. — Life changed for Jessica, 16, after she decided to eat a brownie laced with marijuana. 

When a friend offered her an edible marijuana brownie at school on a Friday afternoon, she willingly took it. “Yeah, I’ll try it,” said the Reedley High School junior, who asked not to be identified by her real name. She was determined to act brave and try drugs for the first time.

Jessica kept the brownie at home in her backpack through the weekend. Just before school started on Monday, she ate the drug-filled brownie. She became seriously ill in class and was taken by ambulance to a nearby city hospital.

“We [parents] were so scared,” said her mother. “This was the first time she had ever done anything like this before.”

In many towns, Jessica would have gone to juvenile court, facing charges of drug possession and being under-the-influence. At the age of 16, she would gain a criminal record and most likely pay a fine and complete three years of probation. 

But in Reedley, Jessica and her friend with the brownie had an opportunity to “make things right” by choosing to participate in a restorative justice process with members of the community instead of going the criminal justice route. In this process, she and her friend would be held accountable for their actions as they examined their behavior, confessed it, listened to the impact of their actions and made amends.

"We want them [juvenile offenders] as community members, not as prisoners."

- John Swenning

“We want them [juvenile offenders] as community members, not as prisoners,” said John Swenning, restorative justice director for West Coast Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).

Since 2011, West Coast MCC, Reedley Police Department and Kings Canyon Unified School District have worked directly with 270 young offenders, helping to steer them toward restored relationships instead of the criminal justice system.

By working together, the organizations, officially called the Reedley Peace Building Initiative (RPBI), focus on prevention and intervention of juvenile criminal behavior by using restorative justice and conflict resolution skills in mediation sessions.

Chief Joe Garza, left, and Lt. Marc Ediger, right, of the Reedley Police Department and John Swenning, West Coast MCC. Photo courtesy of RPBI As a result, the Reedley community has seen a 75 percent reduction rate of juvenile felony crimes and 40 percent reduction rate in juvenile misdemeanor crimes. And that’s in a town known for its history of ongoing gang violence that has resulted in drug-related and violent crimes among juveniles.

“The Reedley approach to restorative justice is one of many effective approaches that schools, churches and communities can use to implement a restorative approach to relationships,” said Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, coordinator for restorative justice for MCC U.S. Trainings and resources on restorative justice are available through MCC U.S. 

Mediation brings forgiveness                                                                                     

Jessica had a mixture of emotions as she sat in a conference room with her parents for mediation. The young man who gave her the brownie and his mother were also present. As offenders, they presented their apology and were held accountable by a victim panel – a small group of people from the community.

“I was nervous and relieved,” Jessica explained. “I was getting a second chance.” 

Jessica’s mother was also anxious.

“It was emotional,” Jessica’s mother said.  “I didn’t know how things were going to go. You hurt for your child … you hurt over the decisions they made.”

Jessica’s mother admitted to not liking and being upset at the young man who offered her daughter the brownie before the mediation process started. “In that moment, I didn’t want to face him,” she confessed. 

Jessica’s mediation was led by a trained community volunteer, one of 75 who have been trained by RPBI, to handle the restoration process.

“They [meditators] come from all over the community … different neighborhoods and backgrounds,” said Swenning. “They all care about Reedley and the kids and this community. We are here for one purpose, to serve each other and the kids in the community.”

"Something happens when you get across the table to hear and listen to the other person.  Hearts are softened, minds are changed, opinions are changed and more often than not you walk away with a peaceful resolution.”

- Kimberly Baker, mediator and mother of a former offender

Jessica’s mother was surprised by her change in heart. “A few minutes into the mediation, my attitude changed,” she said. She listened to the story of the young man who gave her daughter the brownie, heard his apology and accepted it. “I felt that I could begin to move forward from this experience.” 

Kimberly Baker, another mother who went through the mediation process with her son a few years ago and is now a mediator herself, explains that many people come into the mediation session with negative preconceived notions of the other party. 

“Once you start to hear the information … find out what the other family is going through, forgiveness happens,” said Baker. “Something happens when you get across the table to hear and listen to the other person. Hearts are softened, minds are changed, opinions are changed and more often than not you walk away with a peaceful resolution.”

Why restorative justice works

West Coast MCC’s John Swenning believes the RPBI approach addresses juvenile crime in a way that will teach young offenders and victims how to resolve conflicts through dialogue and negotiation instead of responding in violence.

“Out of the 271 juvenile offenders, only 19 of them have reoffended,” he said. Out of the re-offenders, 13 of them did not complete their RBPI contract agreement. 

Photo courtesy of Christa Wiens 
At Kings Canyon United School District, where school suspensions declined by 61 percent in the last four years, Learning Director Joe Arruda credits the reduction to RPBI and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports Program (PBIS), an educational approach that emphasizes positive classroom management and student-teacher relationships.

“Adults are connecting with the kids more.  It is more of a relationship,” said Arruda, who is in charge of school discipline at Reedley High School. Restorative justice is one of the resources he can use instead of punishment.

Want to learn more about different ways that schools incorporate restorative justice into their disciplinary approaches? Email Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, restorative justice coordinator for MCC U.S.

Swenning said that West Coast MCC is helping create relationship-building opportunities between juveniles and their families and with community partners through the RPBI program.

“Reedley is a smaller community,” he said, “but we still have the same issues as big cities and other communities. … RPBI is an added tool for law enforcement and communities to use instead of living in fear. It is a positive means to come together.”

Moving forward                                                                                                           

 “I feel really glad that something like it is available,” Jessica said. “I am grateful and it helps me get through this situation. It is the first time I did something this bad.”   

One of the requirements from the mediation process is for Jessica and the young man who gave her the brownie to talk to incoming freshman about her experience. Jessica said she will tell students about the dangers of drug use and encourage them to make smart choices.

Jessica’s parents are appreciative for the help that RPBI offers to young people. “I am happy that it exists and that it is there for students … great kids who make a mistake. Their mistake should not affect their future in a negative way,” her father said.