RICHMOND, Va. -- When Courtney White was first pitched the idea of restorative justice, she admitted she was skeptical.
"I was super upset, because I felt they needed jail time for what they had done," said White.
The "they" in this situation were the fraternity members charged in relation to the death of her cousin, VCU freshman Adam Oakes.
The idea was, and the concept behind restorative justice, was to remove the case from the court system and have a mediated discussion between Oakes' family and the accused where they could talk about what happened and come up with a solution that they could all agree on.
It was an option the family eventually came around to and took part in discussions with three of the fraternity members.
"The process worked for us. It definitely impacted our relationship with the boys involved, but also just with therapy -- just, kind of, getting through and being able to ask the people that were there that night with Adam questions," said White. "In that session, I mean, you talk about what happened that night, but then you also get to pose questions for clarity. And for my aunt [Oakes' mom], a huge piece of this was just trying to find some sort of closure, and answers about what happened to Adam that night. I don't think they'll ever be closure, per se, but, I think it definitely helped her to get past that and to get answers to some of her questions."
White shared her family's story Tuesday at Virginia Union University during a forum on restorative justice hosted by the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney's Office (RCAO), which launched the restorative justice program in January 2022.
Along with the Oakes cases, Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Kelli Burnett, who runs the RCAO's restorative justice program as the lead coordinator of the community justice reform unit, said they have referred 20 cases to restorative justice with 14 successfully completed, three in progress, and three failures.
"The goal of the forum today is really to share the information that we've gathered so far. This has really been a journey and a learning process for us over the past couple of years and we are ready to work with the community to see where it's going next," said Burnett.
Along with featuring the court program, organizers also discussed the other half of the program that is aimed to keep problems from even getting to court or police through what are known as "circle keepers."
"There's approximately 12 individuals all split up into Northside, Southside, western, and eastern. These 12 individuals already have a foundation in their community," said Lashawnda Singleton, one of the circle keepers and the program coordinator. "What we do is we utilize those individuals to go in in a preventative measure. If you hear two neighbors are having conflict and do not know how to resolve it, before it spills out into the community that circle keeper can go into that community and bring those two individuals together, anyone else involved in a situation, and have that conversation -- that healing conversation as to 'How does this impact you? What is the outcome you would want to see from it?' and allow those two individuals to come up with an understanding that they both will be able to fulfill."
Several of the circle keepers also run their own nonprofits and incorporate the restorative justice practices into what they do.
"We use restorative justice as a way to keep young people from ending up in conflict. Oftentimes, kids in school, they're experiencing different challenges with their peers or perhaps even at home or in their communities. And we are creating this space for young folks to come together to talk about their challenges, and to work through them and to find solutions that they are able to lead," said Valerie Slater, Executive Director of RISE for Youth.
Slater said an example of a circle keeper session that she led involved a young person who had taken something from another young person.
"When we brought these two young folks together, we found out that the reason the person who took it was because they were facing immediate danger and they were just trying to get out of danger. And so, the person that they took from, they took empathy and they then became a mentor for that other young person, because they were a little older," said Slater. "It turned out beautifully, because ultimately, they are still friends to this day."
Singleton added that the circle keepers are here to help not just the communities they live in, but the city as a whole or anyone else interested in learning more about them or utilizing their skills.
"We are willing to come into your spaces to utilize these circles to help with community healing, to help with community engagement, and also be an alternative to incarceration or punitive discipline," said Singleton. "I just think this is an exciting tool to be used. And I hope that more people become interested in restorative justice and reach out to Richmond Restorative Justice for this experience, and to have a circle within their space."
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