Today we’ll be talking with Erin Freeborn, Executive Director of Communities for Restorative Justice or C4RJ. C4RJ is a growing non-profit that partners with 32 cities and towns in Massachusetts to rebuild trust, and offer a path forward in the wake of crime. C4RJ listens to victims, holds responsible parties accountable and restores trust in communities. Their volunteer-led circle dialogues are called restorative justice, they say it’s personal, it’s powerful and it’s why C4RJ is a proven effective option within the justice system. Let’s hear more about their important work right from Erin. Erin, I’m so excited for you to be here today and to talk to me about the wonderful work that communities for restorative justice or C4RJ is doing. Would you be able to introduce yourself, share about C4RJ, your role in it, and really how your team defines restorative justice. Thank you so much Sydney for this opportunity, and I want to also thank the center for helping us lift up different voices in the field. It’s so powerful, so thank you for this opportunity. So as we said I’m Erin Freeborn, I’m the executive director at Communities for Restorative Justice, also known as C4RJ, and C4RJ is a growing nonprofit that partners with 31 cities and towns across Massachusetts. We partner with their police departments, the middle six, Suffolk and Northwestern district attorney’s offices, and we’re a community-based restorative justice program that works to respond to crimes and to rebuild trust and offer a path forward after those crimes. So in this work we listen to victims and help lift up their voices, we hold offenders accountable and we work with all of the partners and stakeholders to try and rebuild or restore trust in a community after a crime occurs. And our process is volunteer-led and community-owned, we recruit volunteers in a community so they can respond to a harm in their community and work in partnership with the police department in their community. And so we use a circle process dialogue and in our process restorative justice is used to involve to the extent possible those who have a stake in an offense and they work together to collectively identify and address the harms, the needs, and the obligations in order to heal and put things as right as possible. And often our work is done before criminal charges are filed and instead of proceeding with a court case we can, with our district attorney partnerships or our diversion partnerships with the courts, we can work with cases past arraignment but we put a lot of effort into trying to catch cases before that moment of establishing a criminal record. So C4RJ was founded in 2000, so 21 years ago, and it’s founded on the restorative justice principles which acknowledge that crime is a violation of people and relationships, crime creates harms, those needs and those obligations come from that incident, and that those most affected should be meaningfully included and empowered in the response to the decisions about what should happen next after a harm. So C4RJ took its first case as I said in 2000, and since then we’ve worked with almost a thousand responsible parties, probably a thousand plus in the Boston metropolitan area over the last couple of decades. That’s amazing, what important work you’re doing, thank you for sharing all of that. Oh thank you. So I am curious, you mentioned that the kind of the goal is to catch the cases before they go through the process. So why is direct referral by local police important in your process, how does that help. Well I think one of the really valuable parts to that is allowing the victim the opportunity to be in more control over the process to respond to that harm, and have some, more of a voice in that process and be spared the experience of the court process. Sometimes the court process can actually Be, I’ll say challenging or not as rewarding, and you know we could probably have some other critiques of the court process for victims, but the experience of being able to respond more quickly and ask the victims directly what they want, and how they would like the process to move forward, what they would like to see as steps of repair, I think is something that doesn’t happen in a courtroom, and a courtroom’s not set up for that conversation and that dialogue. So I think it is really valuable to give victims this other option in lieu of proceeding to the courtroom, because the courtroom can be scary, the courtroom can be daunting, the courtroom can be isolating, and we work really hard to be an alternative to that. Another valuable part of being a process that is at the pre-arrangement or pre-charge phase is that it allows a responsible party to take responsibility for their actions, but without that fear of legal punishment because responsibility in a restorative context is not the same as accepting legal guilt, but it is allowing that person to look at the ones they have harmed. There are all those ripples of harm, right, there’s that direct victim or impacted party, it’s their family, it’s your family it’s your neighbors, and it allows a person to be in conversation with that group and accept responsibility in a different way without that fear of the adversarial punishment that sort of takes a different course. In the restorative process you’re able to just have a very different conversation because the healing and the repair comes out of the honesty and the truth telling, and when we’re able to go deeper with the person taking responsibility then that allows the person or people who are impacted, or the community, to go deeper with their healing or to begin their healing, or to move forward in a better way. Definitely and for the Folks, for the police watching who are wanting to allow responsible parties to take this route rather than maybe going through the court process, how have you seen the involvement of the police benefit your program more broadly and also benefit the responsible parties, how does their involvement impact this. I think many police are working in communities where they live or where they grew up, or communities that they just feel committed to, they want to develop relationships within the community. These are their neighbors, their friends their family, and I think it is so powerful for police officers to have another tool in the tool belt or another option. A lot of times we hear our officers refer to restorative justice as a tool in the toolkit. We all know it’s so much more than that but it’s an easy way to understand that it’s a resource that officers can use to respond to harm and not every case is going to be appropriate for restorative justice, but for those where the responsible party is willing to take responsibility and the victim or the impacted party is willing to at least allow the process to move forward, then there’s so much potential for that repair, and I think police really appreciate that. One of our chiefs would say you know I used to have two options, I either had to arrest and prosecute, or do nothing and restorative justice kind of offers that third way that other option of balancing not taking responsibility but yet not going that fully punitive route that then marks person with that criminal record. They have that in Massachusetts the CORI record, that criminal history that follows them and actually can create so much other harm or unintended consequences to the parties involved. So I think police offer appreciate the opportunity to have another option. I think that they also appreciate having a way to show that they care and want to help the community and the individuals and even the responsible parties, or the offenders that they encounter. I hear from a lot of officers that they do want ways to help and they don’t necessarily have all the tools, or they don’t necessarily have all of the resources that they would like, so they appreciate working with communities for restorative justice because we come in as that other partner to try and connect the dots and they can provide their perspective and we can also, with help of community members, find some other resources or supports for a family or an individual, and working together all of these stakeholders can help make the community a better place. This partnership is extremely important and really does impact the responsible party, it impacts the entire process in general and your work is vast. You’ve partnered with over 30 police departments in the state which is amazing, and how do you create and maintain these relationships with these different police departments. It really is about finding partners who want to be in conversation and try things and trust building that trust so that our systems partners are willing to say okay here’s a case, C4RJ go do your work and come back to us and report if there’s a problem or report when it’s done successfully. So that’s really, that is a relationship that’s developed over time. A couple of ways that we maintain this, the communication threads and also build these relationships is that we are a community police partnership. That’s how we were founded and we’ve developed into partnerships with more stakeholders, but we have a quarterly Police Council meeting, which that group is, that’s a body made up of primarily Police Chiefs. That’s usually the touch point for the Chiefs, it’s on a quarterly basis. Some departments have liaisons that they’ll send or a Deputy Chief or someone that will come in the set of the Chief but that is really the main communication channel for all of those teams to come together and have an opportunity where we as an organization present to them data. We present, you know, this is how many cases you’ve referred how many impacted parties were included how many responsible parties, how many community members, and so we will sort of report out to them different information as far as cases are concerned. We will talk about case trends and case themes. Another way that we sort of stay in touch is that we do have a representative from that Police Council, one of the Chiefs sits on our non-profit board, as well, so we have an active police chief perspective in those conversations because as a small nonprofit board i think it’s also important to have that voice of the partners that you’re working with on the ground, that’s really important. And then it’s really important, one of the most important parts of our process is having an officer in the circle, and that can be a representative from a department, like for example if a department has a Juvenile Officer or they have a community officer, that might be the person that’s most frequently sitting in the circles because it just fits with their personality. It might be that they’re more familiar with the parties involved, especially if the community, some communities just refer juvenile cases, so then it makes sense to have the Juvenile Officer, because they might be familiar with the young people in their community. But it might also be the responding officer from a particular incident and that can be quite powerful because they are also a person involved, and a person impacted, if there’s a chase or if there’s a very involved investigation. Those are the times where I think it can be most impactful to hear from the police officer about another layer to the incident. It’s important for the responsible party to understand the different ripples that their action had, not only on the particular person who was harmed, maybe the primary impacted party, but also their family their neighbors, their community and also the police involved. I think sometimes people say well it’s the police’s job to go out and respond to these cases so that’s that, it should be really compartmentalized, but I think it’s important for us to look at our communities and what’s happening in our communities holistically and find ways for those parties to have an opportunity to reconnect after the dust settles and find a different way to be in relationship, because if an officer and an individual’s only interaction was that night where the one arrested the other, that could be a dissatisfying way to end, it could be harmful. If we give those parties an opportunity to come together in a different context at a different time when emotions have calmed, they can have a different type of conversation and it can actually be really healing for the responsible party to realize that officer who arrested you also wants the best for you, they want to figure out how they can help connect you to some support services or just people to show that they care about you, and that you don’t have to be defined by this action. Every one of us is so much more than one negative act in our lives. This mutual commitment between police, between the community, between you all really has the opportunity to create systemic reform, and systemic reform is something that’s thrown around quite often, but I’m curious from your perspective how does your team create systemic reform. It’s a big job that all of us need to take a little piece of, but there are two key ways that I think we are helping to shift and improve the system. One is when we can catch cases before they get caught up in the system because they feel like the legal system is one that, once you are involved it is hard, becomes harder and harder and harder to get out of, or to get away from, and so if we can intercept people at that juncture right before arraignment or right before the charge, pre-charge is great pre-arrayment’s great, even early phase cases are good, but the earlier you can intercept that person and that case and still find ways for people to accept responsibility for what they’ve done, to find ways to be accountable to those that they have harmed, and also to find, you know, what’s appropriate, what did, what follows the victim’s wishes what does a victim want, it should really be our guiding question all of the time. The second way that I think, I know we are impacting the system and I’m really excited about this, in the fall of 2020 we launched a partnership in Western Mass that was really initiated by the District Attorney, he decided that he really wanted restorative justice to be accessible in part of his jurisdiction, he wants it in all of its jurisdiction, he like we want everybody to have access to restorative justice, but of course we have to start one step at a time. So the District Attorney that covers Hampshire County partnered and helped identify six different Police departments whose Chiefs were interested in restorative Justice. We’re willing to start our partnership at the same time with the same policies and their approach is unique because they are considering a restorative justice first model. I like to debit the New Zealand approach, it’s C4RJ’s New Zealand approach. What they are doing is looking at all qualifying adult offenses and offering them restorative justice first and if restorative justice is unsuccessful or if the parties are not interested then they proceed to prosecution, and that I think is significant systemic change because if we can demonstrate that it is possible to do this approach, that it is, which I I’m confident we can, it is powerful, it is meaningful for the impacted parties, it impacts recidivism because once a person goes through a restorative justice process the likelihood that they’re going to commit a similar or worse offense in the future goes down drastically. That is, I think, an opportunity to really demonstrate that restorative justice and restorative principles have the ability to really create some significant systemic change. That’s amazing Erin, thank you so much for sharing that and I’m excited to hear how that is both starting with this DA and then expanding across Massachusetts across the country because that is incredible work, so thank you for being with me today and sharing a little bit more about C4RJ and about the wonderful work that you’re doing with police, with the DA, I mean just with your communities, so thank you for being here. Thank you so much for the opportunity.