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The Daily Need

In Baltimore, victims meet face-to-face with their offenders

Lauren Abramson speaking at Pop Tech 2010. Photo: Kris Krüg

CAMDEN, Maine — Putting victims and their offenders together in the same room and letting them “work it out,” as Lauren Abramson, the founder of the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, put it, may seem a tad naive.

In fact, it can be a more effective — and perhaps more serious — approach to juvenile justice than what judges and prosecutors do now, which often amounts to no more than temporary incarceration and release.

As evidence, take this: The dismissal rate in the juvenile justice system in Baltimore, a city with one of the worst crime rates in the country, is around 50 percent. That means half the young offenders who cycle through the court system, for anything from robbery to felony assault, are released without so much as a lecture. “It’s either not much happens, or you get put in detention,” Abramson said of the youth offenders. “A lot of them do see it as a joke.”

Rather than treat it as a joke, Abramson treats it like a behavioral and emotional problem — one that can be resolved.

Her program brings victims, offenders and their respective families and supporters together to discuss their problems and, especially, teach the offenders the consequences of their actions. “Our justice system is costly and overburdened, and not getting us the kind of results that we need,” Abramson said in an interview here at the Pop Tech conference, where she is presenting her work. “And we’re empowering people to make their own decisions, which they do incredibly well.”

Last year alone, more than 1,400 people, including 650 youth offenders, participated in the Community Conferencing Center. The offenders are diverted there by officials in the justice system, rather than simply released back onto the streets. And the results are impressive: The re-offending rate for Community Conferencing Center participants is 60 percent lower than for the juvenile justice system in Baltimore. Only nine percent go on to commit crimes again, and only two percent fail to get through the mediation process altogether.

On their face, the statistics would seem to suggest that the cases that come to the center are less serious than what you might see, for example, on “The Wire.” And indeed, Abramson’s program doesn’t deal with especially egregious offenses like murder or drug-related crimes, perhaps the most pervasive criminal justice problem in Baltimore. But the Community Conferencing Center does work with youth offenders who commit felonies like assault and auto theft, and has been trying to convince law enforcement officials in Baltimore to send them even more serious cases — especially repeat offenders.

“We just keep pushing them to send us more and more serious cases, because we think this is a serious option, and we don’t want really minor cases that shouldn’t be in the system anyhow,” Abramson said. “Our feeling is, give us the 12-year-old whose got 10 priors, because whatever you’re doing isn’t working.”

Abramson sees her program not only as an alternative to a flawed justice system, but as a new and healthier way of dealing with conflict more broadly in our society.

“We can learn a different way,” Abramson said. “We’re all learning kind of the Jerry Springer model of dealing with people, and it doesn’t work.”

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