“I understand that good people make poor choices” – Reflections on restorative justice from a store manager whose employee had been taking money from the cash register to cover the cost of his family’s rent

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    This piece was written by a business owner who was affected, or harmed, by a youth’s theft. The names of those involved in the repair circle, and the specifics of the case, have been excluded to protect the privacy of the youth. 

    At the start, it was difficult to remove myself from the frustration I have for unnecessary loss that affects my associates so much; it seems senseless and preventable, but my commitment to show up for the RJP circle was based on helping a former associate, who made a poor choice. Having made my own mistakes, and the love I have for people in my life who have made mistakes as well, I understand that good people make poor choices…

    I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the Restorative Justice meeting.  There were eight chairs in a circle, and bodies that filled them. We spoke face-to-face; I expressed my frustrations and the consequences that my associates’ faced, as their income was affected by the loss in hours they could work.  I explained how the community pays higher prices anytime a company experiences loss and – the worst part of the circle – was not knowing beforehand if I was wasting my time in this process. The commitment of time is significant to me. I travel over an hour each way to work and, like most salaried associates, I don’t leave after 40 hours.

    In the circle, we set goals to restore what was lost.  One stipulation for a successful completion of goals was repayment, but if I were to be honest, the damage to my quarter had already been recorded.  Any restitution would go directly to our corporate office and have no effect on my team’s ability to earn hours from repayment. For me personally, the most important task [on the reparative agreement] was to help someone who experiences the effects of theft the deepest: impoverished community members. I know what it is to be hungry. I wanted most for him to help people who also know what it’s like to be hungry.

    I left the circle not knowing what would come over the next several months. I did not truly know if the young man had heard my concerns or cared for other people he may have hurt.

    At the closing circle, I listened to all parties speak. The parents, the volunteer mentor, the community members – but who I was most anxious to hear from was the young man we were there for.  He had participated in his first semester of college; he achieved the credits he attempted, and with honors. He earned the money to repay what he had taken from my company, and he had to find creative ways to earn it:  he hayed for a farmer, he fished for a fisherman, and he worked a job with a local retailer. Beyond that, he volunteered at a local food pantry, providing services to the most impoverished people in our community, and he enjoyed the experience so much he said he wants to keep volunteering.  The most meaningful of all of his successes was hearing his own words about what he had learned from this process. I was moved to tears as he read his letter to me aloud. He addressed every issue I spoke about at our first circle: he expressed his regret for hurting the friends he made by the reduction of their hours related to his choices. He acknowledged his thoughtlessness in his decision making process and he took pride in his actions to make things right.  He looked me in the eye when he apologized and he thanked us for helping him to put things right to the best of his ability.

    I can’t be certain if his success in the process was having an amazing mentor, caring facilitators, parents who genuinely care for him or if the process is a much better answer to the issues he faced than jail time or tarnishing his criminal record for the rest of his life.  Surely, their involvement mattered, but in the end, it was up to him to decide what he wanted to do with the opportunity. I for one, could not have been more pleased with his outcome. I am incredibly proud of him, and the decision I made to participate in his circle. I hope I get to see what he does next and I hope he decides to keep in touch.”