Kara Hunter, Executive Director of the Yolo Conflict and Resolution Center, visited the podcast this week. The Yolo Conflict and Resolution Center (YCRC) is a local nonprofit that offers mediation and other services to the region. Anyone having a conflict can call YCRC for mediation services for free or low cost, and the group is meant to be a community resource. They also do trainings on conflict resolution skills, communication, and listening, to help people deal with conflicts that come up in the course of their lives. One of their newest endeavors is a restorative justice program, that aims to keep low-level crimes out of the court system and have them handled through a restorative justice and communication process.
Prior to working at YCRC, Kara spent about 14 years working with juvenile offenders, particularly through advocacy and mentorship. The restorative justice program was what drew her to YCRC, because it particularly works with youth and young offenders to keep them out of the courts and out of the prison system.
YCRC, although it doesn’t really have a target group – anyone from the community is welcome to use their services – they tend to focus on groups individuals who interface with the public and often need to have good conflict resolution skills, like police or public figures. The main service they provide, however, is mediation, where two or more parties having a conflict will call upon YCRC to mediate and facilitate communication. Some of their most common cases, particularly in Davis, are landlord tenant cases.
The YCRC actually got it start to fill a void that was left when the city defunded its landlord-tenant mediation services. Former city government employees from that department got together and founded the nonprofit as a way to continue those services in Davis and the greater Yolo region.
YCRC has expanded its programming beyond mediation, to include trainings, like the ones they provide for public figures and others. This is useful for anyone who has conflict at any point in their lives (hint: it’s all of us). Many people get nervous, or angry, when confronted with conflict, and YCRC strives to make communities better at addressing issues in a peaceful, communicative manner. They aim to make conflict a constructive, rather than a destructive, force in both the community at large, and individuals’ lives.
One of the focuses that drew Kara to the organization was this educational service, particularly its focus on youth. There are many people who are never taught how to productively deal with conflict, and YCRC aims to begin education from a young age, which is why it reaches out to youth and particularly at-risk youth, populations.
Currently, YCRC partners with the school district, the police department, and the district attourney’s office. In the future, they’re looking forward to working with the courts and prison systems more, including mentoring and teaching folks as they’re released from the prison system, both in restorative justice practices and in conflict resolution skills. Kara feels this is particularly important because people coming out of the prison system are constantly dealing with conflict, and most people are not naturals at constructively mitigating conflict. She is looking forward to offering their mediation services and trainings to these vulnerable communities, as a way to help them not only productively manage conflict in their own lives, but to use their newfound skills to help integrate back into society after incarceration.
A newer, but exciting program YCRC is offering is restorative justice, which presents a different way of looking at crime – rather than focusing on the act of wrongdoing, they focus on how it has harmed a community, and how to make the wrongdoer understand the harm and the obligations it creates. The program aims to bring together the people involved, and have them come to an agreement by which the harm can be righted or mitigated in some way. Then, once the act or acts of restoration have been completed, the wrongdoers is accepted back into their society, rather than ostracized, and their label of ‘offender,’ is often struck from their record. The program aims to heal in a way that the current justice system does not – Kara points out that many folks who go through the traditional justice system, on both sides of the act, do not feel any type of closure, even after the verdict. The restorative justice program, however, works to create that feeling of closure by bringing together both parties and coming to a mutual agreement.
Currently, the Yolo County DA offers a volunteer program called Neighborhood Court, which deals with low-level crimes in the specified neighborhood. YCRC has facilitated the trainings for the members of the neighborhood courts, and these groups work at helping the offender right the wrong or undo the harm caused by their actions, so that the community can heal and the offender can learn. In addition, YCRC has partnered with Davis Joint Unified School District (DJUSD) for a referral program, where youth who have committed low level, nonviolent crimes (such as graffiti, or possession of marijuana), are brought together with the victim (if there is one), for a dialogue about how to proceed in a way where both the victim and the offender feel the wrong has been righted, and the outcome is achievable for the offender.
Often, restorative justice is called ‘transformative justice,’ because of how it transforms not only the situation of how justice is administered, but how it transforms the offender and the victim, and offers a way of accepting and understanding that allows people to become whole after a wrong has been done. All of us, Kara points out, have done something stupid, and we don’t deserve to be punished for life because of a small offense. If offenders are allowed to work through the wrong, and to reintegrate into the community after it occurs, it can head off many of the school to prison pipelines we see happening all across the country. It’s a slippery slope once a youth is labeled an offender, and Kara acknowledges that some kids really embrace it, which only makes things worse, both for their trajectory, and for the community as a whole. This is even more important when considering racial justice in the community, particularly with who is disproportionately targeted to bear the label of ‘offender,’ for low-level, nonviolent crimes that most youth commit.
Its often said that our prison system is broken, and Kara argues that at its core is the fact that we don’t allow for reintegration into society after someone has been to prison. Once someone is incarcerated, that stays with them for life – they can’t vote, must report it on every job application, and it follows them everywhere. It can become someone’s identity, and it’s no wonder there are so many repeat offenders. We have to, offer people a way to make amends for the crimes they’ve committed, but also, once they have, to accept them back into our society. As Kara mentioned before, people will embrace the labels they are given, especially if they have no way of casting them off, and with that in mind, it’s no wonder we see so many repeat offenders in our prison system.
But Kara is hopeful – many agencies, from law enforcement to the District Attourney’s office, have asked YCRC for help. They acknowledge that there is an issue, and that not only restorative justice, but conflict resolution training, can help change the way things are. Even people in the California Department of Corrections have informally reached out to learn more about restorative justice and what they can do to make the justice system work.
Here in Yolo, particularly in Davis, there have been two high-profile cases that have floated the idea of using restorative justice: the vandalism at the Davis Islamic Center and the Picnic Day 5 incident. Kara points out that while these might seem like good candidates for restorative justice, in order for the process to work, both parties have to come to the table willing and open to discuss. Mandates to participate in restorative justice tend to color or sour the conversation, and can negatively affect the outcomes. Particularly in these cases, the high profile of the events has made all parties involved understandably cautious about their next moves, but restorative justice is still on the table.
To get involved in YCRC check out their facebook page, or go to one of their board meetings. They reserve time at every meeting for public comment and they post the agenda on their website. They talk about everything from the nuts and bolts of a nonprofit to the strategy of which populations they can reach out to next. One group that has been on the YCRC radar is the elder population in Yolo, and what conflicts they might have – from interpersonal conflicts in assisted living facilities, to family disputes around end of life care or wills. Beyond the board meetings, YCRC is always looking for new volunteers and community mediators. They facilitate a community mediator training every year (the upcoming one is in January 2018), and many mediators come back to volunteer with the community mediation process. In addition, they’re always looking for folks to join the restorative justice and neighborhood court programs – facilitator training is free. They are particularly interested in office and legislative interns, and had a fabulous UC Davis intern help them track policy and legislative changes over the summer. More information for all these services, events, and ways to get involved is available on their website.