Editorial: Falmouth should reconsider 'restorative justice'

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We applaud the Falmouth Police Department and School Department for trying to find a kinder, gentler way to deal with teens who commit first-time, nonviolent crimes like underage drinking.

But we don’t think a process quietly adopted last fall – described as “restorative justice” by Falmouth High School Principal Gregg Palmer – is the way to go.  

For starters, it was adopted secretly, without the usual public notice or discussion. It’s probably fair to say most residents didn’t know it existed until our staff writer, Ben McCanna, reported on it last week.

It requires misbehaving teenagers, like those recently caught drunk after a party at a country club home, to self-report to school administrators in exchange for not being criminally charged and publicly identified.

If school officials fail to report back to police that some sort of consequence has been arranged – for example, public service, or suspension from school sports or extracurricular programs – police will assume the teens have failed to keep their end of the bargain, and they will press criminal charges. 

It sounds fair, and innovative, until you realize that it disregards the interests of everyone except the students involved. It also gives police too much discretion, and puts unnecessary responsibility on the shoulders of school administrators.

Falmouth residents have the right know if their children’s friends and classmates are breaking the law. Sweeping that information under the rug creates the false impression that Falmouth’s young people do no wrong. It prevents the community from facing its problems, and from teaching its children that behavior has consequences, that there are responsibilities that go along with living in a law-abiding society.

Without a publicly understood and accepted process, it also depends too much on the secretive judgment of police officers and school administrators. Is it plausible that star student athletes or debate team leaders will be offered the anonymity of “restorative justice,” while the class clowns and social outcasts are handed summonses and sent to court? We don’t think that’s too much of a stretch.

What about teenagers from other towns who party with their Falmouth friends? Will they have to go to court, while the Falmouth kids are sent to the principal’s office?

And why should 18-year-olds, who are adults, be treated like 15- or 16-year-old juveniles? In the case that prompted McCanna’s report, at least one 18-year-old received the same, anonymous treatment as the younger revelers.

At the very least, to ensure equal justice, it should be up to prosecutors, not police, to make case-by-case decisions. Let the police do their job, by the book; if they believe crimes have been committed, the alleged perpetrators should be charged. And let school administrators do their jobs, providing strong educational environments, without also having to act like judges, juries and parole officers.

If alternative, or “restorative,” justice is absolutely necessary, there are already better options.

The most traditional is for prosecutors or courts – which, as Cape Elizabeth Police Chief Neil Williams told The Forecaster, already treat teenage first-timers more “informally” – to let teenagers agree to public service, or some other alternative, in exchange for having charges put on hold. If the teens don’t comply, the “filed” criminal case can be reinstated.

The other, more interesting alternative, is Maine Youth Court, which The Forecaster covered a year ago. It is a system that allows young people who have committed nonviolent crimes to be held accountable by their peers. It has strong support and involvement from juvenile community corrections officers, judges, lawyers, district attorneys, social service agencies and schools – and is already available in several surrounding communities, not to mention hundreds of other communities around the country.

Both of these choices are better than a procedure that compromises both Falmouth’s police and its schools.