To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution
What law enforcement tool does every shopping mall and big office building have -- but not most neighborhoods? Their own police force. It is hard to imagine how we can restore order to our communities without giving them some role in creating and maintaining this order. Think, for example, about what typically happens when a kid first gets into trouble -- minor shoplifting, vandalism, a fight. The police are called to the scene. And what do the police do? They remove the young person from the very community against which the crime has been committed.
The implicit message is that your sin is against the city or the country or the state, not against your neighbors or your community. Thus, from the very start we teach the wrong lesson. Imagine instead that the community had its own constables -- with police training and powers --but who lived in the community, were known in the community and helped the community maintain its own order. In minor non-violent offenses, the first person on the scene would be the constable, who could quickly bring the offender before a community judicial board instead of waiting months for the matter to wend its way through the normal judicial labyrinth. If found guilty, the offender would have to provide restitution or perform community service.
This is not day-dreaming. The Spring 1994 issue of Policy Review described the system of elected constables in Houston, TX. One of these constables was Victor Trevino, who managed -- with the help of over 200 volunteer deputies (fully trained and with arrest powers) -- to cut the crime rate 10%, arrest nearly 2,000 wanted parole violators, slash the school truancy rate in half and bring back Little League after a 25-year absence. Trevino, the first latino immigrant elected in Harris County, worked in an inner city community of 150,000 people. All his volunteers were fully trained and had the arrest powers of regular officers.
Neither is the notion of community-based restorative justice untested. Writing in The Progressive Review, David Spero described how western New York's Genesee County found itself with overflowing jail cells. It turned to community service sentences and to recruiting non-profits, schools, churches and road crews to assign hard work in lieu of jail time. As Spero noted, for the criminals working with such institutions it "was often their first positive contact with anyone in authority."
Then the county developed a system of victim support, including restitution from offenders. A felon diversion program allowed screened offenders a chance to put their lives together while their case was put on hold. Only 5% of those in the program turned out to be repeat offenders. Spero described one case: An 18-year-old sniper on LSD seriously wounded two passers-by. He went through diversion for 18 months, including victim-offender conciliation. This conciliation helps victims heal and forces offenders to confront the pain they have caused. The young sniper finally received a short jail sentence plus community service and now works, pays taxes, and raises a family in Genesee County.
Communities can get involved in other ways, as in the a victim-offender mediation program of LA's Centinela Valley. Director Steve Goldsmith told Spero how is works: First we get the victim to agree to mediation, then the young offenders and their parents. We hold the sessions at a place convenient to the victim, with two volunteer mediators who have gone through 40 hours of free training. The mediators let the victim and offender work out the solution. The important thing is the kids have to hear the consequences of their actions on others. Such programs take a lot of effort. There are about 200 volunteer sponsors and victim advocates in the Genesee program and more than a 100 community agencies working with offenders. Yet there is no substitute for organic social order. We can't just call the cops and think everything will be taken care of.