Chippewa County Restorative Justice program celebrates national week of recognition

Jessica Stölen-Jacobson
Montevideo American-News

Each November, a national week of recognition is held in honor of the Restorative Justice Program. Locally that was celebrated by the Chippewa County Restorative Justice program on November 4th with a dinner held for volunteers of the program commonly referred to as “Circle”, along with members of the group’s steering committee. The program began in Chippewa County in June of 2007, after discussions were held about the high cost of out-of-home placements for youth in the local area. “We learned from Yellow Medicine County that their numbers of out-of-home placements were low and they attributed it to having restorative justice in their county,” says Chippewa County Restorative Justice Manager Angela Arndt. “The main goal of the program was to reduce out-of-home placement costs and the overall picture of giving kids a second chance was an added benefit.”

Left to Right: Angela Arndt (Restorative Justice Manager), Volunteers: Brandon Maher, Margit Bonnema, Sandy Gustafson, Dennis Ammerman, Matt Danielson, Jim Vik, Doug Hodge, Don Jensen and Courtney Buseman (Restorative Justice Coordinator). Front Row: Josh Schueler.

The program serves youth ages 12 to 17 and is typically for first-time offenders who have been deemed eligible for the program. The program is not court-ordered but is court-referred. “It’s an opportunity for them to get their crime dismissed from their record. It’s a good option,” says Arndt. Youth are referred to the program through the courts, with the judge ordering a continuance for dismissal. If they successfully complete the program, it goes back to the courts for a disposition hearing to dismiss the charge.  The program operates as their own department, with funding from Family Services as well as from a grant through OJP. The Restorative Justice program works to help youth make amends for the crimes that were committed. “Circle is like a support group,” says Arndt. “It’s made up of volunteers and we help the youth identify what happened, and how to not repeat the action again. We identify coping skills.”  Those volunteers come from the community and are comprised of an average of four to six persons from a variety of age ranges and backgrounds. “Volunteers are important. Without them, we wouldn’t have a program and we stress that when the kids come in,” says Restorative Justice Coordinator Courtney Buseman.

The foundation of the program utilizes a Native American tradition, referred to within the program as “Circle”.  Each Circle meeting begins with a meal being provided to the families and volunteers. Arndt says there are six components to the program, that operates under the idea that the meetings start with an opening, and end with a closing tradition. “The opening can be a poem, or a game, or a short story to be kind of an ice breaker. At closing we have something to close the space,” she explains. Additionally, there are guidelines set forth at the beginning of the program that outlines how each person wants to be treated and plan to speak to each other while in Circle.  “We use a talking piece to direct the dialogue as to who’s talking. If you have the talking piece you speak if you don’t, you listen,” she says. “All decisions must be agreed on and we all must come to a consensus.” One of the main components of the Circle is storytelling. “That’s where I think the volunteers are most beneficial in being there and participating, listening, and giving advice. Everybody’s different. We have different ages, different backgrounds, and different experiences. Everyone gives their story. It helps everybody grow from each other with everyone getting to know each other and building relationships,” Arndt says. 

The most common crimes committed that bring youth to the program are criminal damage to property, theft, vandalism, substance use, burglary, and some fifth-degree assaults. The program does not currently serve any crimes involving sexual offenses, or heinous crimes such as murder. Once a youth completes the goals created by consensus in their social compact created in Circle and are doing well in their life outside of the program, the group of volunteers and the family can come to a consensus that the youth should graduate from the program.  “If they have a felony crime and complete the program, that’s a major plus for them that the felony does not go on their record. If they want to go into the military, they can, or if they like to hunt, they can still have a firearm and hunt,” says Arndt. 

To date, the Chippewa County Restorative Justice program has served 133 youth, with 73 of those graduating from the program. They currently have six active youth in the Circle program. The program tracks the youth for up to two years after the program, with a recidivism rate of just a little over five percent. “I think the most rewarding part of it is watching kids learn and grow from their mistakes. I think the parents appreciate that it’s also there to support them and if there are problems they can’t resolve there may be other resources we can provide.” 

For anyone interested in volunteering for the program, the Chippewa County Restorative Justice office can be reached by telephone at 320-269-2688.