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Milwaukee Moves Closer to Creating Restorative Justice Program for Teens

The Milwaukee Youth Council
Milwaukee Youth Council lobbies for Teen Court

Milwaukee may create a restorative justice system for youth to give first-time, non-violent offenders a second chance to stay on track. The Milwaukee Youth Council is pushing the plan. 

None of its members could attend this week's hearing on the idea at city hall because they were all in school, so City Clerk Jim Owczarski explained the proposal to a Common Council committee.

“The police officer who is assigned would say, 'son or daughter, you can get this ticket, or you can enter this restorative justice process and try to understand what it is that brought you to this bad choice. If you go through this process, we will tear up the ticket,'" Owczarski explains.

According to city records, the Milwaukee Police Department issues thousands of in-school citations every year. 88 percent are for three offenses: truancy, disorderly conduct - fighting and possession of marijuana.

“If you issue a citation to a 14-year-old person that carries a $350 price tag, they don’t pay it anyway," Owczarski says.

When the young person cannot afford to pay the fine, Owczarski says, the system often suspends their driver’s license. Without a valid license and with a record, many youth can find it hard to get back on track.

He says there’s a national trend toward looking for alternatives like teen courts that already operate in some Wisconsin communities, yet the planned system for Milwaukee would work a bit differently than some, according to Andrew Vannatta of the city’s Legislative Reference Bureau.

“It’s more of a mediation session. It’s not getting in front of your peers and receiving a judgment,” Vannatta says.

He says the Milwaukee program would steer away from giving students punishments per se, but it might ask them to do such things as take a course in personal skills or perform community service.

Only one alderman was skeptical of the idea – Mark Borkowski.

“This might come as a shock, but I think that if you’re going to target high school students, I think it’s too late. I think you’re going to have to target middle school, Borkowski says.

Yet he’s willing to give it a chance. “And you know what, I hope I’m wrong. Prove me wrong,” Borkowski says.

The Common Council committee voted in favor of letting the Youth Council create an advisory board to operate the restorative justice initiative. The board would include social workers from Milwaukee Public Schools, members of the Milwaukee Police Department, a judge and fellow teenagers.

When asked about the initiative, Milwaukee Youth Council President Kalan Haywood II said that he has friends who have been on probation or have been to jail "for dumb stuff that they regret doing."

"We do have a lot of youth that are impacted by the juvenile justice system and the fact is that once they get in, you’re in it. So, what we’re trying to do is kind of stop that," Haywood explained.

The full Common Council will vote on the initiative on Tuesday, February 9.

Nicole Beilke is a journalism major at UWM. She is also studying for a certificate in Digital Arts and Culture. Nicole has reported on topics such as art and activism in Milwaukee, including these pieces for Media Milwaukee: UW-Milwaukee Students Join Tony Robinson Protests and The UW-Milwaukee Grad Behind the Collectivo Coffee Skull.
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