What I’ve learned as a Neighborhood Court facilitator

By Judith MacBrine

On June 6, I facilitated my first Neighborhood Court session. I am one of seven trained facilitators. I was drawn to Neighborhood Court because it uses restorative justice principles to resolve crimes — i.e., identify and repair the harms — as compared to our current punitive justice — i.e., identify the broken law and punish the offender.

With all of the problems associated with the criminal justice system — cost, overcrowding, lag time, recidivism, discrimination — I am thrilled to help find another way to justice. I didn’t expect, however, to be personally impacted by the process.

As a facilitator, I witness offenders shift from being community outsiders (“What? My actions have impacts? You see me?”) to being valued and welcomed members of the community fabric. The majority of cases I’ve heard so far involve UC Davis students and visitors — bright young adults who don’t seem to understand that they impact the Davis community.

Community panelists bring their humanity to conversations about the harms caused to our community and the ways offenders can restore those harms. I’m always surprised by which panelist will share what thing that cracks open and expands an offender’s worldview to see himself or herself as part of the community. Similarly, I’m always surprised by the authenticity, vulnerability and openness the offenders bring to the process.

As an individual, I’ve had to look at my own part in enabling the kinds of crimes we hear in Neighborhood Court. Three of the seven houses that border my home are rentals. My neighborhood of families and retirees has become a mixed student/family neighborhood. I have had to face my own attitudes about students as “others” in our neighborhood … those noisy, party-throwing, loud, crazy-driving people who disturb my peace. Even though I’ve yet to call the police out for a noise complaint, I’ve thought about it.

This year, however, rather than live in the Land of Homeowner vs. Other, I’m committed to shifting our relationship to one of neighborly neighbors. I will know and be known by my transient neighbors. I will start to see them as who they are and who they aspire to be rather than the “others” I have kept at bay. I hope they will see us, too: a husband who gets up early to drive to Sacramento to teach and care for, with dignity and respect, his classroom of 10 teens, all with severe disabilities; a wife who catches the first flight to Maryland to teach rocket scientists at NASA how to embrace diversity and use their privilege consciously as medicine for society; a family living with lots of love and purpose and plenty of life experience to know what it’s like to make mistakes along the way.

As a community member and a systems coach, I know that crime happens inside a community system that shares responsibility for it. The final and oft-forgotten principle of restorative justice is: “to strengthen the community to own its responsibility for causes that lead to crime, thereby preventing future harm.”

What I have learned is that we, in Davis, have an alcohol problem. Up until now, I’ve chosen to be blind to it and think of it is an individual’s issue. Neighborhood Court has shown me that it’s really a community issue.

The issue of alcohol in Davis is diverse and complex. Alcohol is science and education (e.g., UCD department of viticulture and enology; UCD Extension master’s of brewing program). Alcohol is civic pride, commerce, tax revenue, employment. Alcohol is entertainment, bonding ritual, rite of passage, form of self-medication for stress and mental health issues. Alcohol is public drain of police, correctional, emergency and medical resources. These are only a few of the perspectives that represent what alcohol is to Davis.

As we start to look at the community’s role in enabling the crimes that Neighborhood Court is hearing, I hope we will open our eyes and begin to engage this elephant called alcohol that is running through town … peeing in public, falling down drunk, disturbing neighborhoods, causing fights.

I offer my skills as a facilitator and systems coach to begin this needed community conversation. We can be a community that enjoys and celebrates alcohol while at the same time 1) addressing the community issues that enable people to break our community laws and 2) creating structures that help people find their way free should they get caught up in the abuse of alcohol.

Thank you to the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office for bringing the powerful community tool of restorative justice to Davis.

— Judith MacBrine is a Davis resident.

Special to The Enterprise

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