MILWAUKEE -- A relatively new restorative justice program is giving young offenders in Milwaukee the chance to avoid the court system and the criminal record that comes with it.
Tracey Dent, the President of Peace for Change Alliance, founded the Community Based Programming initiative, which is modeled around the concept of restorative justice.
The Milwaukee County District Attorney's office has been using restorative justice for roughly 16 years.
But Dent's program, which launched in January, convenes a committee of citizens overseen by a representative from the DA's office to settle disputes between an offender and victim before the alleged criminal is charged.
Dent said the program is available to first-time young, non-violent offenders.
He said the panel of volunteers, known as "peace keepers," uses input from a person's alleged victim and the DA's representative to craft an appropriate punishment. Because the restorative justice model is used before charges are filed, successful completion of the program means the offender avoids a criminal record.
"The person who committed the crime, they might have to do some community service, they sit down in front of the restorative team," Dent said. "But once they complete the program, the charges will be dropped."
"These peace keepers have a chance to give back and try to save our young people," he said.
A training session for peace keepers was held Saturday at the Center Street Library. Dent said roughly 35 volunteers have been trained so far.
One of those trained Saturday was LaQuinton Greene.
"If I can help somebody through this program, I'll feel like I saved one person," Greene said.
"I'm pretty sure there are a lot of people out there who need some guidance," he said. "They don't have someone trying to pull them away. Everyone is trying to pull them into a bad lifestyle."
Milwaukee County DA John Chisholm, who attended part of Saturday's training, said offenders who complete the program have the chance to prove they've learned by not committing other crimes.
"Often times, the offender will learn and think, 'hey, that was a woman like my mother that I hurt in there,'" Chisholm said. "So it's trying to make people aware of how deeply connected they are to the community, so that they're less likely to commit harm in the future."
He rejected the notion that restorative justice is soft on crime.
"The vast majority of people that encounter the system the first time, they don't repeat and go back in," Chisholm said.
"What we're seeing is that a small number of hardcore offenders are the ones who do, and that's the role of the criminal justice system and the police to deal with that," he said.
The program also builds relationships between civilians, police officers and officials in the county justice system.
Dent said trust between civilians and law enforcement officials may be more important now than ever. He said "tensions are high" following high-profile cases of police officers shooting and killing civilians in Minnesota and Louisiana. He said an ambush-style killing of several Texas police officers that followed the other two incidents only added fuel to the fire.
"This is a vehicle to show we support each other," Dent said. "We have each other's back and we want to work together."
"The police can't do it by themselves. The DA can't do it by himself. It's going to take a collective effort to start reducing crime in our city," Chisholm said.
Dent said any citizens who'd like to apply to volunteer as peace keepers can email firstname.lastname@example.org.