St. Paul Attorney's Office launches new program to give offenders a second chance

Updated: September 14, 2019 10:40 PM

The Saint Paul City Attorney's Office is taking a new approach combat crime. A pilot program launched this month gives some offenders a second chance if they agree to work with their community.

“This is something that's very dear to my heart,” said Reies Romero, a hip-hop activist.

He lives in downtown St. Paul and told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS he jumped at the chance to help his community.

“How do we heal? How do we build community?” he said. “Going back to those roots of love and peace and integrity.”

On Friday, Romero led a restorative circle.

The circle brings together those who have committed a low-level crimes with trained community members. Together they work out plans to apologize for the crimes and provide restitution.

In some cases, the victims may choose to be at the circle too.

“It’s very important that we as community come together and look at how we're affecting one another and how we're treating one another,” said Romero.

It was the first meeting of its kind under the city attorney’s office ETHOS pilot program.

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“You get the opportunity as an offender to see how my actions affected people in the community and the victim in a real interpersonal way,” said Lyndsey Olson, the city attorney.

She said the victim has to give permission before this option is offered. It allows the perpetrator to avoid being charged as long as they successfully complete the plan developed by the restorative circle.

If they don’t, Olson moves forward with prosecution.

The pilot program focuses on Ward 1 and Ward 2 in St. Paul. It deals with first-time offenders who have committed non-violent crimes like vandalism, trespassing or theft.

“This isn't a situation where we're getting people out of jail for free or anything like that,” said Olson. “This is a way to have a meaningful conversation.”

She said restorative justice programs similar to this one have been shown to reduce the chances someone becomes a repeat offender.

“We want it to be something that is sustainable, that grows, that is going to be cornerstone to the way we do justice in the city,” said Olson.

The city has contracted with the Dispute Resolution Center, which is training community members who want to volunteer on the circle.

“There is this understanding when they just sit down and hear each other's side that makes this moment of forgiveness and reconciliation and understanding,” said Dr. Tamara Mattison, the executive director.

According to Dr. Mattison, they are already working on 10 cases. They hope to eventually complete 30 circles.

“It’s a better level of accountability because both sides of voices are heard,” she said. “You feel like you've been part of what kind of restitution you want to be part of or how you want to reconcile.”

The program is paid for through the city budget and a Department of Justice grant administered by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, according to Olson.

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Callan Gray

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