Q & A with Garfield High restorative justice youth mediator Michael Greenstein

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Garfield High senior Michael Greenstein, 17, is one of several youth trained to co-mediate King County Juvenile Court’s Restorative Mediation sessions for young criminal offenders. He recently co-mediated his first session for a youth accused of assisting in a burglary. 

When King County Juvenile Court diverted a young offender into one of its first Restorative Mediation sessions, he didn’t face a room of adults alone.

Garfield High senior Michael Greenstein introduced himself to the teen, who was about to apologize to the victims he had assisted in burglarizing for the first time. The mediation would last about an hour and half.  Youth mediators like Greenstein are a key component of the juvenile court’s new Restorative Mediation program, which brings together non-violent offenders, victims, and community advocates to repair harm with constructive and compassionate solutions agreed upon in the mediation.

Greenstein, 17, has been heavily involved in expanding the use of restorative justice practices in school and criminal justice systems since he was introduced to the concept a little over a year ago. He is one of several Garfield High School students receiving restorative justice training led by Polly Davis, an assistant program manager at King County’s Office for Alternative Dispute Resolution.

We asked Greenstein what motivated him to be a part of the mediation and the restorative justice movement in general.

Why is it so important to you to be able to work with juvenile court?

If a 16-year-old is charged with a crime, that can follow them for the rest of their lives. Once you’re in the system, it’s really hard to get out. From what I see, there’s not a lot of support around youth [who offend]. The kid and the victims in the mediation I helped with—after six months of legal proceedings—they hadn’t even had a chance to talk yet. How are you supposed to heal the community when you can’t even get people to talk?

What moments stick out from your first Restorative Mediation session for King County Juvenile Court?

It was really exciting to see this kid—who must have been kind of the devil in the eyes of the victims—apologize, then explain his motives and why he did what he did. It was groundbreaking how much the victims cared about how he was doing, how his home life was. They really cared, and compassion is such an important part of healing harm. That was the most exciting thing. It’s not all going to be hugs and kisses, but it’s important to establish a relationship between the parties.

What’s your goal as a youth mediator? 

The end-game is to come up with a solution, which may not be perfect. In this case, the kid is going to go to school, address something in his home life, and other little things. Having the victims asking ‘What were they thinking?'” is really important. Hearing what it was like for the children of the family that was robbed was something the youth hadn’t heard before. When you can look in their eyes and say my children can’t sleep at night because of what you did, that’s accountability.

What is your role as a youth mediator in these sessions?

I actively mediate and help each side to understand each side’s point of view. Getting to the emotions of the issue is vital and reaching apologies. I make sure that these little really important pieces of emotion that may have been overlooked are brought to the surface.

How helpful is it to have youth participate in these mediations? 

I think the youth perspective is really important because I can bring up things an adult may have overlooked. The terminology students use helps us relate more, because, how can we not? It’s ridiculous that a youth would be handled by a bunch of adults alone.

Before the mediation, we chat about what we’re going to do next year, build a relationship. It’s not me versus the adults, but it’s good to have someone his age at his side. The other adults are there because of other roles as my co-mediator or representing the community’s interests. My goal is to be there for him.

Why wouldn’t you have youths involved in the process? There’s an assumption that teens are always lost in their own head. I think mediation empowers youth to be a key part of improving the society they live in, and that’s a rare opportunity.

What obstacles are there to incorporating restorative justice into high school student discipline policies?

In the school system, it’s difficult because Seattle Public Schools are under so much scrutiny. To get people on board, you have to go so far up. Meanwhile, I can’t mediate at my school and the whole system with which students are disciplined doesn’t fit restorative justice principles. We need teachers to be okay to track them into the program. People mean well, but we live in a society that is used to litigation, so changing the system is hard. But we do have the criminal justice mediations and, as I said before, they are more important than the school mediations, so I’m glad we’re doing that first.

Are you hopeful that the use of restorative justice practices will grow in both school and criminal justice systems?

There’s no reason it can’t. The only reason would be that change is hard and slow. The head youth judge for the courtroom side is on board and has already referred cases to the Restorative Mediation program—the first few have been some pilot cases just to make sure the process works.  I hope this expands as a dominant form of criminal justice.

We’re a small group, but the kids are engaged and there’s a lot of interest in social justice at Garfield High. We want to do the work we’ve been wanting to do at our own school. You can get disgruntled when things get bogged down, but I do think this can be incorporated into Seattle Public Schools’ policies someday.