Redwood Falls Gazette
  • Redwood County has new restorative justice coordinator

  • When Eric Johnson became a volunteer for the circle sentencing program in Redwood County, he saw it as an opportunity to help provide youth with tools they need to get back on the right track; little did he know just how involved in the restorative justice program he would be just a few years later...
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  • When Eric Johnson became a volunteer for the circle sentencing program in Redwood County, he saw it as an opportunity to help provide youth with tools they need to get back on the right track. Little did he know just how involved in the restorative justice program he would be just a few years later. “I have been a volunteer since the program first started,” said Johnson, who is the new restorative justice coordinator for Redwood County. “For me this was a way I could help offer something different than the traditional system. This is good for the kids.”
    As the coordinator of the program, Johnson has been involved with facilitating the circles, although he said he and fellow circle sentencing volunteer Linda Eskeldson had been trained as facilitators under a past program coordinator. The biggest difference he sees in his role now is doing the paperwork and looking for funding to help ensure the program is able to continue. Johnson said he saw the value of the circle sentencing program from the beginning. “The kids who are being helped through circle sentencing were my friends growing up,” said Johnson. “I think seeing the kinds of struggles my friends had and understanding where they came from has really helped me.” Working with kids has always been a passion for Johnson, especially the ones he sees who are having those struggles in their lives. The circle sentencing program is available for teens primarily in the 15-18 age range, explained Johnson, adding there are opportunities for kids who are younger, too. Those youth who have committed felony crimes impacting others, such as assaults, vandalism and theft, can be referred to the restorative justice program by the court system. While youth can be referred, that does not necessarily guarantee one access to the circle. “Each circle starts with an application night,” said Johnson, adding that is when those involved in the circle determine if they are willing to invest themselves in the life of a child. Much of that has to do with the attitude of the youth, although Johnson said any youth who is making an effort is pretty much going to be accepted. Once a youth has been accepted into the circle, those who are involved establish goals. “In the circle everyone is equal,” said Johnson, adding he thinks that is what really makes the program successful. “Everyone has a chance to speak from the volunteers, to the youth and the support system that youth brings with them. While Johnson recognizes the new role he plays, he also acknowledges the true success of a program like circle sentencing is the volunteers. “We have a great group of volunteers,” said Johnson, adding a majority of them have been involved in the program from the beginning. “Some of them might take a break from being involved for a little while, but most of them end up coming back. These are people who are dedicated to the program. Johnson said there is always room for more volunteers, adding they can contact him at the restorative justice office on the main floor of the Redwood County courthouse in Redwood Falls. One may also call (507) 637-1139. During a traditional circle night, a meal is provided, explained Johnson, which he said is a great way to help build relationships. Then once the circle starts the group looks to see if the youth has met the goals agreed upon during past circle times. That goal might be anything from staying sober to just being in school every day, explained Johnson, adding when the youth does not meet the goals of the group, he or she needs to explain why that did not happen. Yes, said Johnson, there are times when a youth who has been accepted into the circle does not successfully complete the program, and when that happens they go back to the traditional justice system. “Some people think this is the easy way,” said Johnson, “but what these kids have to do is hard work. There are a lot of expectations on them.” He said the volunteers hold the youth accountable, adding that accountability goes beyond the chairs around the circle. Those youth are reminded the volunteers in the circle are part of the community, and they may encounter them on any given day. Johnson, who was most recently working at the Belview Learning Center, said he is hoping to create even more circles in the future, including the addition of circles in area schools. Other counties have initiated school-based circles, and Johnson said they have been successful. In many cases, he added, it is the people in the school system, such as teachers, social workers and counselors, who are seeing the students most often and therefore are able to have a positive influence on them as their accountability circle of influence. Johnson said he is going to be looking for additional ways to help fund the restorative justice program, adding he appreciates those who have made donations in the past. Volunteers who would like to help with that part of the program are welcome, too. “The volunteers are really what makes a program like this thrive,” said Johnson. The circle is restorative in its nature, said Johnson, which means the victims of the crimes are also allowed to be involved, and there are times when that is going to happen. Circle sentencing is an investment of community funding, volunteer hours and a lot of commitment on the part of everyone involved, said Johnson, and he said the nearly 30 volunteers bring their own experiences to the circle that help to make it a unique and dynamic experience. Those volunteers put in more than 600 hours of time in 2013, he added. “I see the volunteers who are putting in this time without any personal gain from it,” he said. “I have never seen anything like this before in my life.” That, he added, is what is going to help make this program a success how and into the future.
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