Michael’s Story: Another Reason Why the JJDPA Matters

Yejide Ankobia
December 9, 2015

At my organization, Community Works West—a California-based nonprofit that runs restorative justice programs—we hear a lot of powerful personal stories. I want to share one with you. It’s a story about the impact of restorative practices and the transformative role that laws like the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) and the resources that come with it can play in a young person’s life.

Restorative Justice is a community-based, victim-centered approach to crime that emphasizes reconciliation with victims and the community at large. Learn more.

On June 9, 2015, 14-year-old, Michael and several friends committed a crime at a church in Livermore, California.  The friends tagged the church building and its vehicles with images of ejaculating penises, profane language and other derogatory symbols. The local district attorney could have charged  them with committing a hate crime, as defined by the state’s penal code—that would mean a felony charge. Instead, Michael and his friends were referred to our Restorative Community Conferencing program in Oakland. 

There, the teens and their victims—leaders and members of the church—were painstakingly prepared for a face-to-face conference where Michael and his friends admitted what they had done, apologized for the harm they caused and promised to take whatever action the victims requested to make things right. In exchange for their compliance and successful completion of the program, the district attorney would not file charges for the felony.

Here is what Michael said at that conference:

“You asked me why I wrote those things.  I never really thought of it as hurting people around me.  That night we were hanging out and we got bored.  We decided to sneak out and go riding around.  We ended up at the church.  One of my friends decided to tag at the church and handed me a spray can.  I decided to join.  Deep down inside, I knew it was wrong.  At the time, I was going through a painful loss.  My grandmother passed away unexpectedly and it was hard for me to understand why she was gone at such a young age in her 50s.  The words that came out that night was me being upset about what was going on with losing my grandmother.  I’m not an angry person.  I was just upset because of what was going on with losing my grandmother. 

I take responsibility for my actions and want to fix things with the church.  I am ashamed of the image I’ve created for myself and want to change.  I know my grandmother would be disappointed.  My family are all disappointed with my actions.”

The church representatives could have asked that Michael and his friends pay for the damage to the buildings and other property—that was within their rights. Instead, they decided to require sixty-five hours of community service from each young person involved, to be spent painting positive images and beautifying parts of the church, especially the rooms used by children. The boys’ families added the requirement that the boys improve in school and be more supportive at home. 

When asked about the hardest part of the entire process, Michael said, “Having to admit the whole truth in front of my parents and having to also relive what I did that night.” 

This sentiment is shared by all of the young people we work with, who are required to sit in the proverbial “hot seat” for hours while they listen to victims, families and community members talk about the harm their actions caused. 

This pre-charge alternative to youth incarceration and probation has been very successful for young participants and victims alike with just 11 percent of youth participants reoffending within six-months of program completion.  More than 95 percent of victims say they would recommend the process to a friend or family member.  Our young people express similar appreciation for the process and say they would also recommend the program because “… it helps [youth] realize their mistakes and who they harmed.  And it gives them a second chance.” 

This is a story that can be replicated across the country. 

Thanks, in part, to the Title II JJDPA funding that comes to us through the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), we are able to support alternatives to detention that work better for young people and the communities where they live.  It is critical that Congress act this year to renew and fully fund the JJDPA so we have fewer kids locked up, safer communities and more stories like Michael’s. 

Yejide Ankobia currently manages the RCC program, a victim-centered, pre-charge, diversion model of restorative justice that holds youth who commit felonies directly accountable to those harmed by their actions. Referrals for the program are taken directly from the county District Attorney’s offices in both Oakland and San Francisco, CA. She is also a certified yoga instructor and teaches breathing and meditation techniques to youth facing the impacts of trauma.


This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction.

The JJDPA, the nation's landmark juvenile justice law, is up for reauthorization. As legislative changes are being made to bring this law up-to-date, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA. To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.