The face-to-face fix

Q&A: Lauren Abramson


Since opening its doors seven years ago, the Community Conferencing Center, a Baltimore nonprofit, has offered an alternative way to address crimes and resolve conflicts: Those involved in a dispute are brought together to talk about what happened and agree on a way to apportion responsibility and move on. Unlike traditional mediation, the conferences bring together not just those immediately involved in a conflict but also others affected by it - family members, neighbors, teachers - with typically about a dozen people sitting in a circle with one of the center's six trained facilitators.

Its approach sounds almost too simple, yet the center has been successful at handling neighborhood disputes and juvenile justice cases. The state Department of Juvenile Services refers several hundred cases a year to the center - mostly second-degree assaults, thefts and vandalism. The cases cost the state about $800 per conference, much less than the cost of processing cases in the court system, and the center's data show that youths who go through conferences are far less likely to be arrested again.

The Sun spoke with the center's founder and director, Lauren Abramson, 46, who is also a part-time professor of child psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University.

So, what's the philosophy behind the approach? That it's good to have people airing things out?

It's getting people to do the radical thing of talking to each other. In doing so, they actually connect with people as human beings, as opposed to putting people in categories and deciding they're terrible. The other part is deciding: What can we do to make this better? That's the problem with the Town Hall-meeting type thing, where everybody's bitching at authorities and no specific plans come out of it. It's both the importance of giving people the voice to air it out and then asking them what do you want to do about it. When people make their own decisions about things, they're way more likely to follow them.

Part of why we think this is important is that we think people who cause harm are entitled to an opportunity to learn how to do it differently and do it better. When we punish people, it doesn't tell them what to do, it just tells them what not to do. We think people have a right to learn how to make things better.

You've said you try to reach a point where those in a conference feel "collective vulnerability." What does that mean? That we're all in it together?

Yes, and it's amazing that it does happen, as everyone starts to tell their story and the picture is fleshed out about who has been affected by this, and people recognize we all have a part in this.

We had one where we had neighbors that had called the police on each other like 75 times. There had been a knife incident and a gun incident, and they didn't even know what had started it. When they got together, they realized that one of the girls had said something derogatory months ago about another one's clothes, and it had escalated and the parents got involved.

They're sitting in the circle and screaming at each other, but then, at one point, one mother bursts into tears and says, "I just realized that my cousin was killed last month over something as stupid as what we're arguing about, and if we don't do something right now then someone in this circle is going to be dead." There was a palpable sense of deflation; all that hot air just went pffftt. And in the next 10 minutes, they worked out an agreement which held.

Many people would argue that using this approach for juvenile crimes is being too soft. What's your response?

People hear about it and the first thing they say is, "Oh, that's pretty touchy-feely." The fact is, we've heard from young people that it's much harder for them to do community conferencing than to go through the system, because the system often doesn't have the capacity to provide a meaningful response. A lot of kids think getting arrested and going to court is a joke. There's a very large percentage of cases that never go to court, and another percentage that do and are dismissed. The system's evolved to where young people who are arrested get no response, and then they do something and keep doing that, and then they do something so bad they get incarcerated. We're offering something in between.

What's an example of the kind of resolution that can come out of the conferences?

There was one where a guy whose truck window was broken, and he wanted the kid to go to jail and he wanted money. Well, this kid's parents were divorced, and they went to great lengths to make it to that meeting, and when the guy heard that the kid is on his way to being the first to graduate from high school in that family, he ended up donating his time and money to help that kid. That's our hope for transforming these situations, that people connect with each other as human beings and not "that punk who broke my window." The guy came out feeling totally different.

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