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39 APRIL 2002
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restorative justice

Holding Kids Accountable: Shaming with Compassion

Sgt. H. Allen Campbell and Andrew C. Revering

The Editors of RCY write: We are pleased to recognize a pioneering program, Police Accountability Conferencing, developed by the Anoka, Minnesota, Police Department. The program has been highly successful in moving the paths of many young people away from delinquency, and it is now being implemented in schools and community agencies nationwide. This is but one example of the growing number of programs rooted in the principles of restorative justice. Police and school authorities, victims, offenders, and families are brought together in a process designed to hold youth accountable for their actions, to teach them personal and civic responsibility, and to restore harmony to the community. This article describes the philosophy and procedures of this new approach, and its potential for reclaiming youth who have engaged in behavior that violates the community. The underlying principles have relevance to any organization, professional, or parent committed to the positive development of children and youth.

Three young boys who had caused hundreds of dollars of damage vandalizing windows in their school are confronted by the victims of their crime in a police accountability conference. The boys are ringed by their parents, a uniformed police officer, the school principal, and even the school maintenance worker who had to repair the broken windows. In turn, each participant confronts the boys about the impact of their destructive actions. The police officer describes the offense that was committed. A building tradesman and the school maintenance worker explain to the boys how much time they – and an assistant – spent replacing the windows they had broken. The principal speaks of what might have been done for children in the school with the $600 spent for repairs. The parents tell how disappointed and disrespected they felt that their son, who has so many positive traits, would do something so inconsiderate to the family and the school. The boys” initial nervous fear and superficial guilt is transformed into deep feelings of shame. After it is clear that the boys comprehend the gravity of their actions and feel the pain of remorse, all parties begin to bring them back into the social bond. Plans are made for restitution through hours to be spent helping the school maintenance worker. Parents and teachers help the boys begin rebuilding the trust that has been damaged.

Reintegrative shaming
The previous anecdote is an example of a police accountability conference held in Anoka, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. There are two goals – to make young offenders accountable for their actions and to successfully reintegrate them into the community. This approach is rooted in Maori tribal traditions of conflict resolution and Australian policing concepts that Anoka Police Chief Andrew Revering calls “shaming with compassion."

Due to a rising rate of juvenile crime, the community of Anoka began using an innovative diversion process for juvenile offenders. Within two weeks of the offender admitting his or her guilt to the police, and with parental consent, he or she takes part in a police accountability conference. At this very focused and intense meeting, the offender, parents, victim, victim’s family, and various support groups are all present. The meeting is facilitated by a uniformed police officer specially trained in what criminologist John Braithwaite (1989) described as “reintegrative shaming." Shame is something far different from legal guilt. When used appropriately in conjunction with reintegration, most adults find that youthful offenders experience true remorse. Given the opportunity to amend their actions, young people usually do.

Using shame to instill responsible behavior is still considered controversial. In recent generations, shame has picked up a finger-wagging moral connection considered to be detrimental to a person's ego. But this is an era when increasing numbers of persons engage in antisocial acts with little apparent remorse, and the pendulum is swinging away from avoiding making people feel bad when they do something wrong. Reintegrative shaming has been used since 1991 in Australia, and in 95% of the cases, juveniles do not reoffend. This is a powerful finding, especially in contrast to the high recidivism rates common to the U.S. juvenile justice system.

According to Braithwaite (1989), shame plays a key role in the regulation of social behavior. It does this in two ways – internally from our conscience and externally from social disapproval by persons whose acceptance we value. The shame of social disapproval is much more painful than the pain caused by exercise of conscience; therefore, most people avoid it by regularly exercising their conscience.

People are deterred less by the threat of official punishment than the threat of public disgrace. The loss of status, respect, and affection is significant, but it is not a threat that state officials can make. It can only be made by those who have a significant personal relationship with the person whose behavior may cause harm.

Effective accountability conferences employ these insights. The youth receives social disapproval in a setting that distinguishes between unacceptable behavior and the potentially good young person, while also offering the possibility of social reintegration. The conference is designed as a ritual in which victims, offenders, and those closest to them can deal with their shame and anger. Having done so, they can remove the labels of victim and offender. The victims of crime and their community of care – as well as the offender and their community of care – need to be involved in the process of determining how best to repair the harm or damage resulting from the crime. Only by being confronted can offenders begin to understand the extent of the harm they have caused and begin to help repair that harm. The likelihood of reoffending is then significantly reduced.

A better way
The presence of the victim and the process of reintegrative shaming are not typically used in approaches to antisocial behavior. In Anoka, initial reaction from court and referral agency personnel was negative. Some individuals believed the police were stepping out of their role as crime fighters and encroaching on court or social service functions. Only through the efforts of the Citizens Anti-Crime Commission did they learn about this model and become willing to give it a try. It soon became clear that the conference was one of the most effective forms of community policing and community problem solving that could be used. Although this model is being used with more serious offenders in other settings, the Anoka program required that the juveniles involved normally be first-time offenders who had committed a minor theft, vandalism, assault, or disorderly conduct.

Considering the number of conferences that have been performed, the Anoka Police Department has received very positive feedback from victims, the victim’s support group, offenders, and their support groups. Police officers on the beat who were disenchanted with the effectiveness of juvenile court referrals have also become proponents of this method for handling juvenile offenders.

A growing number of successful police accountability conferences have shown very low levels of juvenile offenders returning to the judicial system. In 70 cases in Anoka in a year and a half, only one youth had reoffended. A sampling of responses from participants included many positive comments. One victim reported, “It was a risk. I’m glad I did it. It was really good." An offender’s mother, commenting on positive changes in her child, said, “They got to the root of what was happening. I was very pleased. Now my son behaves like a young man and lets me know what he is doing."

Existing systems do not offer police, teachers, judges, parents and other adults ways to respond appropriately when confronted by antisocial behavior. Victims are not involved in determining how to repair the harm. Offenders are not required to face their victims. Although the public demands that the young offenders accept responsibility for their actions, how can they do so when they do not understand the consequences of what they have done? In the end, the larger community is left to pick up the costs while the criminal justice system keeps rolling along, arriving at penalties that are usually considered inappropriate in the eyes of those most directly involved.

We must not be afraid to look to other countries' concepts of juvenile justice because what we have been doing has not been working. Hard-nosed rhetoric such as “lock them all up" simply is not effective. If the youthful first- or second-time offender is dealt with early and efficiently, and is held accountable, changing his or her behavior in a positive fashion may be possible.

Sgt. H. Allen Campbell is juvenile unit commander of the Anoka, Minnesota, Police Department and has provided training on this restorative model to police departments nationwide. Andrew C. Revering is the chief of police of the Anoka Police Department. He led the effort to establish this innovative alternative to juvenile justice by helping establish a citizens” anti-crime commission. The authors can be contacted at: Anoka Police Department, 2015 1st Ave. North, Anoka, MN 55303.


Braithwaite, J. (1989). Crime, shame and reintegration. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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