Earlier in the night, he and a friend were spotted pilfering airsoft guns and pellets from a West Des Moines department store. In total, they stole almost $300 worth of merchandise. On his way home, the police caught up with him.

“It felt like a daze,” said Neumann, now 18.

...Alec Neumann can’t say why he shoplifted. “There was no purpose behind it. I guess it was just for the thrill,” he said. “The ride.”

What he does know is that his actions that night culminated a couple of years of bad behavior. Formerly a straight-A student, his grades at Iowa Christian Academy sank to a 1.9 GPA by his junior year. He became depressed. And he started sneaking cigarettes, beer and pot.

“You start to lose yourself,” Neumann said. “You just find yourself going down this slope. You’re in such a deep hole that you don’t feel any motivation to get up out of it.”

But he was given a way out. Instead of facing a criminal charge, Neumann, a first-time, low-level offender, was the perfect candidate for the West Des Moines Police Department’s Youth Justice Initiative.

Rather than focusing on punishment, restorative justice brings together offenders, victims and representatives of the community into a circle, where the needs of all involved are recognized. In place of court-mandated punishment, the offender makes a plan to repair the harm he or she has done to the victim and the community.

Programs that bring offenders in contact with victims can reduce recidivism, research shows. A 2003 report by the University of Tennessee and the University of Minnesota found that in a sample of 9,307 juvenile offenders who participated in victim-offender mediation, re-offenses declined 26 percent.

...As a participant in the Youth Justice Initiative, Neumann met with his circle monthly and went to family classes for six months. He had to take regular drug and alcohol tests and pay the damages for his crime.

With the help of the group, he decided to do 50 hours of community service. The process from start to finish yielded radical change.

“We had the first circle meeting, and I was pretty shut down,” Neumann said. “It was not a fun experience. But each circle, you find yourself trusting everything a little more.”

Today, Neumann is record free and studying sales and marketing at the University of Northern Iowa. He attributes his success to the intervention he received as a result of his crime.

“Before coming to this program, I didn’t see myself going to college. I didn’t know if I was going to make it,” he said.

If he hadn’t been apprehended when he was, “it probably would have been with something worse. Looking back, honestly, it scares me at times.”


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