Teen Finds Redemption in Restorative Justice

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EDITOR'S NOTE: The following first-person essay was written as part of a collaboration between The Know Youth Media and The Fresno Bee, examining the impact of restorative justice programs on the lives of young people.

My name is John Alex Pena. I'm 19, I've got five siblings and a mom, and I've spent my whole life in Fresno.

The first time I got in trouble was freshman year. I had like 40 Sharpies in my backpack. The principal saw (the markers) and put me in the opportunity class, for problem kids. That is when it all changed.

When I was put in that classroom, I was in there with the worst kids in school, and after that, it was just all bad.

I was 16. That's the first time I got in trouble with the law at all. Before that, I was doing good.

The next time I got in trouble, me and my friend were right here in Easton (in Fresno County), right here at Washington Union High School. I had just bought 20 spray cans from Wal-Mart. That same night, me and him just hit up all around Easton. We were running from the cops, we were hiding out and then about five minutes later they caught us.

I'd actually heard about the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) before that. VORP came down and I had a one-on-one interview with them. I signed a contract saying what I would do to help out the situation. I felt bad for hitting up this taco shop, for tagging it. So I went over there myself and I apologized. It was never (put) on my record because I went over there myself. That was the first time I (participated in) VORP, and I think they're a pretty good program.

It's actually pretty simple, just a couple steps. You go with your family, a couple family members, the first time. You go down there, and meet with the victim -- basically what you do is you apologize to the victim. They have you talk with them and sign a contract and help them out, the victim. That's about it.

They had me clean up the school for them. [And] if anybody else vandalizes the school, I just clean it up. It actually feels good, because now I know I'm helping out. I felt bad for my decisions. When I'm cleaning up other people's graffiti, I just shake my head: "Why are you really doing this still?" It just gets old.

All the hurt I put on my family, and all this, it's not really worth it. It's just a waste of time and a waste of life. I would feel bad, you know, letting my brothers know it's OK to do this. That's the only reason I'm doing all this, because I'm showing them a better way, being a better role model. I am the older brother, and I'm being responsible for my decisions.

The author, John Alex Pena, says he’s stayed out of trouble since completing the VORP restorative justice program. He’s currently studying for his drivers license test and plans to find a job and attend adult school.