Re-offending rates for young people who went through the Community Conferencing Center are 60% lower than for those who went through the juvenile justice system – and CCC costs 90% less per case than the juvenile justice system.
“I know whatever I’ve given in doing this work, I’ve gotten back twofold,” Lauren Abramson says of her work as founder and director of Community Conferencing Center (CCC), a conflict resolution organization that allows participants—victims and offenders, parents, and bystanders—to discuss how a crime or conflict affected them and come to a restorative outcome.
Abramson is one of the first OSI-Baltimore Community Fellows. She had been operating CCC in four separate locations for about a year when the fellowship, in 1998, gave her the means to centralize and strengthen the program.
The fellowship allowed her to dedicate all of her time to focus on the work, which Abramson says was “invaluable.”
Abramson learned group conferencing, a form of restorative justice, from researchers in Australia who adapted it from indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, the Maori. In it, an entire community of people who have been affected by a crime or incident are brought together by trained facilitators to discuss how they have been harmed by the offense. The entire group then decides how the incident might be resolved. Typically the session ends with all participants signing an agreement outlining commitments and expectations.
To date, CCC has facilitated 18,000 conferences, referred from the criminal and juvenile justice systems, schools, communities, and elsewhere. The stories of restoration are seemingly endless.
In a case profiled by the Washington Post Magazine in its 2009 story, “The Truth About Forgiveness,” CCC facilitated conferences between Bernard Williams and the man who killed his son—14 years after the murder. The conferences helped Williams heal and ultimately forgive the murderer, and even support his release at a parole hearing. In one conference, after learning about the many challenges facing a juvenile offender, a victim decided that he did not want the high school student to go to jail for damaging his truck. Instead, the victim not only turned down payment for repairs, but offered to tutor the offender to help him graduate and offered to provide financial assistance for college.
In another conference, a community came together to develop a football league for a group of young people who had nowhere to play but the streets.
CCC is interested in “repairing relationships when harm is done,” something with which the legal system isn’t necessarily concerned, Abramson says. But when harm is done, communities and relationships are fractured. CCC gives those harmed a renewed sense of connection and trust and, perhaps more importantly, a sense that they can prevent this from happening again.
Over the last 20 years, OSI-Baltimore has supported 189 other Community Fellows who have founded and sustained important, local organizations such as Community Law in Action, Thread, Baltimore Housing Alliance, Bikemore, Wide Angle Youth Media, the Book Thing of Baltimore, and dozens more.
The network of Fellows of which Abramson is a part proved to be crucial to her work, linking Community Conferencing Center to other fellows and projects, from after school art programs to re-entry services, which became vitally important to building the work to where it is now.
“In the 18 years since the fellowship, OSI has helped direct us to people and organizations that have made our work more relevant,” says Abramson. “And the relationship is reciprocal, in that OSI calls on us as well if it needs our services or connections.”