The Neighborhood Justice Program: A Relational Response to Crime
Written by: Michael Evans-Zepeda, PsyD, City Attorney’s Office, Los Angeles, Neighborhood Justice Program
The Neighborhood Justice Program (NJP) is one of many community-based initiatives created by Mike Feuer, the Los Angeles City Attorney, to reshape how a governmental prosecutorial agency engages with the numerous public safety challenges a city like Los Angeles faces. NJP and other programs underneath the Community Justice Initiative (CJI), such as the Dispute Resolution Program (DRP), the Homeless Engagement and Response Team (HEART), the LA Diversion Outreach and Opportunities for Recovery (LA DOOR) program, and the Prostitution Diversion Program (PDP) among others, view these challenges from a relational perspective. It is, in part, this relational perspective, where crime is viewed as a rupture in our interconnectedness, that makes NJP and the other programs so effective. Through a broad overview of NJP, I will explore how this relational perspective is implemented and some of the results created by it.
NJP is a diversionary program based on restorative justice principles and handles a variety of misdemeanor offenses at the pre-filing and post-filing stages. It gives participants the opportunity to go through a community-based intervention instead of the traditional criminal justice system and avoid the possibility of a misdemeanor conviction while repairing the potential harm to the community caused by the offense. Participants must take responsibility for their actions, go through a panel process, and complete co-created obligations within a two (2) month time period for their case to be closed. Once participants cases have been closed, they are invited to participate in the program as a volunteer.
The panel process is at the heart of NJP. The panel consists of a participant, a trained facilitator, three (3) volunteer community panelists, the victim when available, and an administrative coordinator (AC). Generally, all members of the panel sit in a circle, shoulder to shoulder, without tables or other physical obstructions between them. The intentional positioning of the members of the panel in a circle begins to lessen the inherent power dynamics and reminds us of our shared humanity. Currently, NJP has adopted a virtual format via videoconferencing due to the pandemic. The facilitator opens the panel by going over the confidentiality of the process and the basic format of the conversation to follow.
The panel conversation occurs in four main parts: 1) getting to know the participant and/or victim; 2) what happened and why from the participant and/or victim’s perspective; 3) what was the harm caused by the participant’s choices and to whom, and; 4) how we can repair the harm. Getting to know the participant and/or victim is one step in humanizing the process. Open ended questions are asked, and the participant and/or victim are given the space to share as much or as little as desired. Commonality with, and understanding of the other, is sought by the panelists. We begin to explore what might be some of the root causes to the event and the harm caused by it. The next phase of the conversation explores what happened from the participant’s and/or victim’s perspective and why. Details and reasons often range from clear and concise to blurred or nonexistent on a case-by-case basis. We ask ourselves to sit in the discrepancies between the police report depicting the event and the participant’s and/or victim’s recollection. In the process, we are not tasked with fact finding. We are tasked to engage in deep active listening. In the third phase of the conversation we, starting with the participant, name the potential harms created by the participant’s choices. We examine how the event ripples out and affects all of us and the community in different ways. We also include the impact on the participant. By doing this, we break down the concepts of “us” and “them” and move deeper into operating from a relational framework of simply “us” as an interconnected community. The last phase of the process is exploring how we repair the harm and co-create obligations for the participant to complete within a two (2) month period of post-panel engagement. If we have listened well, these obligations are created out of the conversation organically and activate our capacity for creative problem solving. Obligations are individualized to each participant on a case-by-case basis and can range from community service to letters of reflection and/or apology to other creative solutions. We do not want to over or under burden the participant, and during this process we ask ourselves to hold the dynamic tension between compassion and accountability. At the end of the two (2) month engagement period, participants show proof of completion of the agreed upon obligations or the case is returned for prosecution.
Initially, participants qualified for NJP if they committed a narrow range of eight (8) misdemeanor offenses and had no previous convictions. Due to the effectiveness of the program, participants are now eligible from a wide range of misdemeanors and individuals with previous convictions are deemed eligible on a case-by-case basis. Participants are all adults, ranging in age from eighteen (18) to approximately ninety-three (93) years of age. Participants also represent a wide range of socio-economic classes and racial/cultural identities with a majority of the participant population skewing to the eighteen (18) to twenty-five (25) age range, lower to median socioeconomic class, and Latino demographics (Los Angeles City Attorney, 2020).
All the participants in the panel process are volunteers. The only exception is the AC who is a paid employee of the City Attorney’s Office. The program cannot function without the ongoing participation of the volunteer community members. Panelists and facilitators all go through required trainings, fingerprinting, and background checks to volunteer with NJP. There are close to two hundred (200) active panelists every month in order to cover each panel location. NJP has trained over four hundred (400) volunteers to date. Volunteers also represent a wide range of age, socio-economic classes, and racial/cultural identities with a majority of the volunteer population skewing toward middle to older age range, median to upper socioeconomic class, and White demographics.
The ACs, who are trained in motivational interviewing, implicit-bias, intergroup relations, and effective questioning, also serve a key role in the program’s functioning and success. The AC makes initial contact with each participant, breaks down the program, completes a risk and needs assessment, schedules, and attends the participant’s panel, maintains contact with participants post-panel, and returns cases for filing if necessary. To be successful in their role, ACs must be adept at building and maintaining relationships, community engagement, data management, and program development along with other areas of expertise. They also provide the containing relational space for the process to unfold and must protect it when necessary.
What are the results of this process? We first look at quantifiable and then qualitative results. The primary measures that can be quantified are recidivism rates and overall cost per case. NJP tracks recidivism over a two (2) year period at six, twelve eighteen, and twenty-four month intervals. The NJP database is fluid and recidivism percentages have a degree of variance depending on when data is processed. With that being said, the recidivism rate for NJP participants is generally around four (4) to five (5) percent with a variance of approximately point five (0.5) percent. Compare this with potential recidivism rate for felonies from thirty-five (35) (Bird, Goss & Nguyen, 2019) to roughly fifty (50) percent (Auditor of the State of California, 2019). Granted, there may be a margin of error in comparing recidivism rates between misdemeanor and felony offenses. Misdemeanor recidivism rates data is not as widely available for direct comparison purposes. Due to this, NJP engaged an independent third party to track a cohort of successfully completed NJP participants and convicted misdemeanor offenders over a two (2) year period. NJP participants recidivism rate was approximately three (3) to five (5) times lower than the convicted misdemeanor offenders recidivism rate(Los Angeles City Attorney, 2020). These are promising results though can also be skewed due to case type, severity, case selection process, etc.
The next quantifiable data which can be measured to a degree is the overall fiscal cost per case to taxpayers and defendants. There is a high level of complexity in calculating an accurate cost per crime or judicial case (Hunt, Anderson, & Saunders, 2017) When we consider per case or per crime cost, we must factor in multiple variables including, but not limited to, the following: court personnel costs, police personnel costs, prosecutorial costs, public defender costs, length and duration of case costs and potential long term costs of recidivism (Hunt, Anderson, & Saunders, 2017). The combination of all these factors would most likely lead to a relative high cost per case when compared to NJP. Secondly, we must consider the immediate and potential ongoing cost of a misdemeanor conviction to our participants. Our current misdemeanor system inflicts multiple fiscal penalties on individuals and can be viewed as a way to monetize low level offenses (Natapoff, 2018). These financial burdens can lead to individuals spending time in jail or probation as they struggle to pay off the debt thus creating a greater overall fiscal cost to all of us for a low-level offense (Natapoff, 2018). For one man, as PBS NewsHour highlights, the impact a misdemeanor conviction has on his ability to be employed remains long after his initial conviction and consequent restitution (PBS NewsHour, 2015). The difficulty he experiences in getting and maintaining employment is not uncommon (PBS NewsHour, 2015).
NJP and programs like it avoid or minimize these potential costs. To get a rough determination of the per case cost for NJP, we need to take into consideration the salaries of six (6) ACs, one (1) legal clerk, and one (1) supervising attorney along with other miscellaneous costs. We would then divide the total operating cost of NJP by the total number of cases resolved to get an approximate cost per resolved case. The NJP average cost per participant is approximately $710. This represents an average savings of eighty-three (83) percent when compared to the $4,277 cost of a typical misdemeanor case in California (Rempel et al., 2018). Secondly, NJP provides two (2) primary benefits to participants: there is no financial burden to go through the program, and there is no risk of a misdemeanor conviction nor the long-term consequences that follow a conviction. These benefits provide a stark contrast to the previously explored costs.
What are some of the qualitative results? Participants complete an exit survey after each panel. Participants frequently report they enjoy the NJP process, feel respected, valued, and understood. Due to having multiple participants become volunteer panelists, I imagine those positive results and impact of the program would continue over time for other individuals. Due to budgetary and staffing constraints, the ability to track survey results over the same two (2) year period as recidivism is limited. The panel process gives us an opportunity to model healthy ways of being in relationship, especially when in conflict and holding each other accountable. Any disagreements among panelists are resolved in front of the participant, further modeling the individualized nature of the process. All parties are changed when we engage in a relational process with courage and vulnerability. Volunteers often express how they have become better people through their involvement in NJP and the panel process. My own ability to be in relationship has also grown, matured, and developed both personally and professionally. I come from a family system that did not provide healthy examples of how to be in conflict, relationship, or community. Participants and volunteers have modeled for me the courage, vulnerability, and commitment it takes to be deeply engaged in community and relationship. I often feel that I have gained more from my experience with them than they may have from me. Other ACs report similar experiences of growth and development.
Restorative justice is not a new concept nor are programs based on it. It does, though, provide a much-needed shift from our hyper-individualistic notion of justice and reminds us of our interconnectedness. If these concepts resonate with you, I invite you to find out more about NJP at https://www.lacityattorney.org/njpand consider volunteering. NJP operates at the intersection of mental health and criminal justice reform. NJP and programs like it need the support and skill sets trained mental health professionals can offer.
Auditor of the State of California. (2019, January 31). California department of corrections and rehabilitation: several poor administrative practices have hindered reductions in recidivism and denied inmates access to in-prison rehabilitation programs. Auditor of the State of California. https://www.bsa.ca.gov/pdfs/reports/2018-113.pdf
Bird, M., Goss, J. & Nguyen, V. (2019, June 20). Recidivism of felony offenders in California. Public Policy Institute of California. https://www.ppic.org/publication/recidivism-of-felony-offenders-in-california/#:~:text=We%20find%3A,41%20percent%20to%2035%20percent
Hunt, P., Anderson, J. & Saunders, J. (2017). The price of justice: new national and state-level estimates of the judicial and legal costs of crime to taxpayers. American Journal of Criminal Justice.42:231-254. DOI 10.1007/s12103-016-9362-6.
Los Angeles City Attorney (2020). Criminal case management system.
Natapoff, A. (2018). Punishment without crime: how our massive misdemeanor system traps the innocent and makes America more unequal. Basic Books.
PBS NewsHour (2015, July 5). How even misdemeanor violations can have lasting consequences on job prospects. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IP4s9ZKSx34&t=16s.
Rempel, M., Labriola, M., Hunt ,P., Davis, R., Reich ,W. & Cherney S. (2018). NIJ’s multisite evaluation of prosecutor-led diversion programs: strategies, impacts, and cost-effectiveness. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/251665.pdf
 NJP recidivism data and source material provided by Jose A. Egurbide, Assistant to the Chief of the Criminal and Special Litigation Branch, Senior Assistant City Attorney, Office of the Los Angeles City Attorney.
 NJP average cost per participant data and source material provided by Jose A. Egurbide, Assistant to the Chief of the Criminal and Special Litigation Branch, Senior Assistant City Attorney, Office of the Los Angeles City Attorney.
Written by: DR. MICHAEL EVANS-ZEPEDA PSYD, PSB94024891, WORKING DIRECTLY UNDER THE SUPERVISION OF DR. MARLENE ELIZALDE-PESCHECK, LICENSED CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST 30285