Growing up as a young black male on Chicago’s West Side, Ethan Viets-VanLear has lost track of the number of times police have stopped and frisked him. He said he remembers being stopped when he was as young as 11 or 12; he said his friends have had the same experience.
These encounters and others have Viets-VanLear, now 19, skeptical of police and the criminal justice system, and whether he and people who look like him can get a fair shake.
“I’ve been arrested a few times,” Viets-VanLear said. “And because of the criminalization of people of color in the city… the police can find a reason to stop you if they want to.”
For this reason, Viets-VanLear has developed mistrust in the system and seeks to bring about change his own way.
As a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Viets-VanLear also participates in a group called Circles and Ciphers. This leadership development program uses hip-hop and peacemaking circles as a means of expression for young men who have been to prison, court or involved in gangs.
Discussions during these meetings allow for open dialogue between young men from the age of 14 to 22. They get a chance to discuss topics that impact them and their own experiences with the justice system.
Experiences like when Viets-VanLear and a friend were recently stopped and searched while walking a block from home.
Viets-VanLear said officers were targeting gang members in the area. He and his friend were handcuffed and searched, but eventually allowed to go after cops were unable to find anything on them.
“I personally have no interest in working with police officers,” Viets-VanLear said after speaking on a panel for restorative juvenile justice at an event for Woods Fund Chicago Wednesday, which seeks to help create a society where people of all racial, ethnic, social and economic status are empowered and have a voice to influence policies that impact their lives.
The concept of a restorative justice system is meant to reduce regression for juvenile offenders within the system. By allowing for an open dialogue between all parties involved in an offense, the juvenile is able to address the offense and work toward positive rehabilitation. Key members for this model would be offenders, victims, parents or guardians, police and judges. The purpose is to prepare youth offenders to return to society with an understanding of their own actions, instead of putting them in a system resulting in a cycle of offenses.
“I don’t believe that’s how change is going to occur in this system,” Viets-VanLear said. Based on the relationship many young men of color have with police in Chicago, a restorative model would not work at this stage, which is why police have not been invited into Circles and Ciphers, he explained.
Young students, maybe in their early teens, would be able to better build relationships with law enforcement for the purpose of preventing juvenile offenses, Viets-VanLear said. By the time offenders have reached his age it’s already too late to build those relationships.
“Police are not allowed in because of the trauma that people face under the hands of the police,” Viets-VanLear said. “We cannot bring people into our space and have them feel comfortable and have it be a safe space before allowing armed policemen to come and sit in circle with us or even unarmed policemen that have a duty to their job and their institution. If they hear our circle talking about gang activity, they have to go tell their sergeant.”
Viets-VanLear said a restorative model inclusive of all members involved in the juvenile justice process might not be the best solution. He said it is up to those targeted by the justice system to find their own solutions.
“What’s going to change the system is us having our own skills of accountability and of peace making, autonomous of this current justice system,” he said.
Paula Jack, chief executive of Northern Ireland’s Youth Justice Agency, doesn’t agree with Viets-VanLear’s alternative model for restorative justice. Including police and members of the judicial system is key to bringing about change within the juvenile justice system, she said.
“Surely, when talking about restorative justice, we need to involve everyone in this decision,” Jack said. “Even the people who we believe don’t agree at this stage.”
Jack said the model of an all-inclusive restorative justice has helped the youth of Ireland.
“If we started to say, ‘Let’s take an approach… because of certain actions of the community;’ we’re only going to involve certain participants, we’re not being truly restorative then,” Jack said. “It’s about breaking down those barriers; it’s about having a process that formally requires you to do that and it’s not easy, believe me.”
Officer Dan Dowling of the Chicago Police Department said one solution would be to include police who know teens, like school resource officers who are already embedded in schools.
“They’re general really good guys and gals, and a lot of the students look up to them because they see them every day,” Dowling said. “They trust those officers enough to go and tell them things, so they look up to those types of officers.”
This would be a better alternative than allowing everyday street officers who the youth may not be familiar with to become involved in any restorative model, he said.