Shelby County DA launches restorative justice program

Watch: New program gives nonviolent offenders chance for fresh start

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A new initiative will change how justice is served for some non-violent crimes and give offenders a chance to get back on track instead of behind bars.

The program is called Community Justice and it would allow panels of people from the community to decide what kind of sentence someone should serve for some low-level crimes.

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Keith Dunning is getting his life back on track after spending 18 years in prison in Illinois. He’s been working with Lifeline to Success, an ex-offender reentry program based in Frayser, for seven years.

Now Dunning said he wants to take what he’s learned to help youth make better decisions in the county’s new Community Justice program.

“I personally can sit down and look a young man in the eye and tell him ‘hey brother this ain’t what you want, take this and run with it’ you know,” said Dunning. “The youth today, you have to show them and they’re only going to believe what they see.”

In the program, District Attorney Amy Weirich said a panel of community members from the area where the crime happened would determine the sentence for some non-violent offenders.

She said the sentence could be an apology or to pay restitution or something more holistic like job training for the offender.

Weirich said the panels will have a resource guide to help make these decisions.

“All of the available resources around Shelby County by zip code and also by the services that they provide so the panel can look to the menu and say based upon what we’re hearing from this offender, based on what we heard from the victim and based upon what the community knows is important here, here’s what we think the offender should do,” said Weirich.

Weirich said her office was still finalizing which crimes would eligible for this program but she said they were initially focusing on misdemeanors like theft, vandalism, non-intimate partner domestic violence and some low-level felony charges.

She said both the victim and the offender must agree to the program to convene a panel but the victim doesn’t have to be there in person for the first appearance. Weirich said the victim can submit a letter.

Dunning believed this was something that will help the community in more ways than one.

“The victim and person who committed the crime sitting face-to-face saying he’s sorry not because we’re making him do it but because he means it from his heart, you know ‘I apologize can I come cut your grass, clean your windows? I didn’t mean to’ and from there builds character on the inside,” said Dunning.

When the offender completes their sentence, the district attorney said the charge will be dropped and expunged from their records.

Weirich said she wanted to get the program started by this September but the pandemic will determine how quickly they can start training for the panel.

Wieirch said about 80 people have applied for the community panels but she said they still need more. She said anyone can apply to be a part of these community panels, even those who have a criminal record.

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