Prison Program Celebrates 20 Years of Repairing Harm and Healing Communities
By Melissa Rosales , Reporter/Producer Nebraska Public Media
Aug. 31, 2021, 6:45 a.m. ·
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The Community Justice Center (CJC) recently celebrated 20 years of helping over 11,000 prisoners and probationers in Nebraska work to repair the harm they’ve caused.
At the Hub Cafe in Lincoln, several dozen people are celebrating, but it’s not just any celebration. It’s a celebration that includes people who have been through a lot and come out the other side, people who have done wrong, but have made amends. The Restorative Justice Intervention is a victim-centered approach to crime. The CJC helps offenders understand who their victims are, what harm they’ve caused, and how they can repair it.
And, it was started by one man 20 years ago.
Jim Jones robbed five Lincoln convenience stores in one night and got arrested and convicted in 1989. While in prison, he learned about restorative justice and how to work through his emotions about his crimes and being locked-up. A few years after he was released, he wanted to share with others what he learned so he created the program.
"Hurt people, hurt people," he said. "You got to understand that you do have value. You made a mistake, but you're not defined by it. You are part of the community, whether the community accepts you or not, you know? Make it yours."
Other restorative justice programs in Nebraska focus on one-on-one interaction between victims and offenders, but that could take over a year to prepare. CJC Senior Trainer Terry Johnson said they shorten that process to an 8-hour class, by bringing victims’ voices to the workshop through reading anonymous impact statements.
"Some of these come from perspectives of say, like the grandparents who now have to take over raising the kids because their loved one made a mistake and [got] locked up," he said. "You know, the thought is ‘Oh, grandma's got them,’ right? Well, no. Now she's part of your mess. Now you're talking about absorbing the financial responsibility, the physical and the emotional needs of these children, and you're talking about someone that probably was very happy just being a grandparent, and now they're forced into a much bigger role."
When Brittany Carder from Chadron, Nebraska took the class and read those statements, she said she started to understand the true harm of her crime of selling and using drugs. Her victims weren’t just her children she didn’t feed or the sixteen-year-old girl whose arm she helped put a needle in.
"There's the police officers who took the time and the risk to search my house," she said. "There's their families who had to sacrifice their loved ones' time, as they went and searched my house. There's the judges, there's the taxpayers, there's my parents, there's my siblings."
Like founder Jim Jones, Trainer Terry Johnson used to have trouble with the law. He believes the U.S. prison system is heavy on punishment but not so much on rehabilitation. So Johnson said it’s important he teaches individuals how to handle their emotions in the program.
"You can have individuals understand the harm that they caused. But, that doesn't necessarily address their overall behavior," Johnson said. "And if they do this, there is a guarantee that they don't come back, all I got to do is, follow the process."
Based on a study from the International Journal on Offenders Therapy and Comparative Criminology, the CJC reduces the chance of former prisoners or probationers from re-offending by 66%, compared to those who didn’t go through the program.
Brittany Carder remembers dealing with her anger toward the 16-year-old girl who got her arrested.
"To actually sit down and talk to Terry and and breaking down the anger that I had towards her, for going and telling on me, and trying to re-wire that thought process.. because she was just a kid that was scared," she said. "And I was just an adult that was supposed to protect her."
Carder said her realization still sticks with her everyday.
"You can either stay in this slump and be ashamed, or you can go and do something better," she said. "When I had that overwhelming sense of shame, it’s like, man, I just want to do better, I want to do better."
Since being released from prison last year, Carder works as an assistant manager for EZ GO in Lincoln, and lives with her husband who has also benefited from the program, and their children. She also apologized to the 16-year-old girl, who accepted her apology, but has been in and out of recovery.
"Thank you to the Community Justice Center," she said. "To the addicts out there that are still struggling, you are worth it. You are loved and you are forgiven. And to my victim, if she ever has an opportunity to listen to this. I hope you know that you are loved and you are worth it. And, it gets better."
After 20 years, founder Jim Jones said they started training staff in other states about restorative justice and how his program works. He hopes it will expand one day to every state in the U.S.