At 20 years old, Jerry Elster was a gang member in Los Angeles. Defiant and angry at a system that he viewed as against him from birth, his attachment to his community was non-existent.
“It was not difficult for me, at that age, to wrap myself in a cloak of resentment and bitterness,” said Elster. Having no ties to his own community, gang life attracted Elster and eventually he ended up killing a rival gang member.
Elster sees his mistakes clearly now because of the restorative justice program offered at his prison, but back as a youth he believes that if programs had existed to help dissuade young men of color from joining gangs, his life would be very different and, more importantly, the public would be safer.
Elster was one of the many participants who came together on Wednesday to brief Assembly Members on the success of restorative justice programs throughout California. His powerful story along with many others, showed that bills such as AB 2590, would bring about much needed change in our criminal justice system.
AB 2590 was authored by Assembly Member Dr. Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) to bring awareness to the highly effective strategies that restorative justice programs offer. Focused on promoting public safety, restoration and healing, listening to the perspective of those affected by crime is crucial.
Although effective in prisons, many participants mentioned the need for early intervention restorative justice programs. They credited programs like the Reedley Peace Building Initiative in Fresno County, for reducing juvenile crime by 75 percent. It also reduced school suspension at Reedley High School by 42 percent and there was an 87 percent reduction in expulsions.
Deacon Martin Ruiz from the Diocese of Orange discussed the many parenting classes that they offer for those parents that have a child in Juvenile Hall. These classes are dedicated to fostering self-sufficiency and mutual responsibility and empowering people to strengthen their personal and familial functioning in order to thrive in society.
Independent research criminologist, Paul McCold , PhD, summarized that research from the past seven decades, all say the same thing: restorative justice programs work. One study he cited by the Smith Institute in London is that there is now “far more evidence on restorative justice with positive results than there has been for any other innovation in criminal justice.”
Assembly Member Weber mentioned the high costs of incarcerating individuals compared to educating them. According to Legislative Analyst’s Office it costs $47,000 per year to incarcerate a person. Comparatively it costs California $9,375 to educate a student, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
This was a key point throughout the briefing, helping children before they turn to a life of crime. They all agreed that the current justice system relies too heavily on punishment and too little on restoring humanity.
Jerry Elster served his time and, thanks to the restorative justice program at his prison, realized that he “was not the sum total of my worst act and I am redeemable.” Now Elster is a healing justice coordinator for American Friends Service Committee and is about to earn his master’s degree. For the past seven years as a productive member of society, Elster remains committed to the program that saved him.
It is the hope of this group that legislators listen to their concerns and vote yes on this bill when it goes to a hearing in the Assembly Public Safety Committee next week.
You can voice your support of this bill by visiting our Take Action page and send a note to your Assembly Member.