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A Second Chance from “A Stupid Mistake”

John made a mistake, which he readily admits: “It was so stupid,” he kept saying over and over during the conference.

John Smith (pseudonym) is a seventeen-year-old boy who got caught shoplifting a t-shirt at a large department store. According to Virginia law, petit larceny is a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by fines (of up to $2,500) and even jail time. In 2021, 163 youth under the age of 18 were arrested for shoplifting in Virginia. The charge went on their permanent record, affecting their ability to rent apartments, get employment, and be accepted into college.

But John doesn’t have to be one of them. Instead, he had the opportunity to participate in Fairfax County’s Alternative Accountability Program. In a restorative justice conference, he and a representative from the department store came to an agreement: John would pay for the value of the shirt he tried to shoplift, submit a written apology to the store, and not return there for a year. There would be no additional fines or permanent record.

John made a mistake, which he readily admits: “It was so stupid,” he kept saying over and over during the conference. But it isn’t a mistake that should shape the rest of his life trajectory. He had acted on impulse, in the way that many young people do. And punishing John for it by taking away his future prospects wouldn’t meet anyone’s needs: not those of the store’s managers or its employees, nor John’s family, and certainly not John himself. Punishment wouldn’t feel like justice. It would feel like another tear in the fabric of the community.

John’s choice created a harm that demanded many things other than punishment: deeper understanding, genuine acknowledgement, and true accountability. Restorative justice conferencing empowered the people involved in the harm—John and the store employees, as well as John’s mother and sister—to ask for and receive some of those things. By listening to the store’s representative during the conference, John gained a better understanding of the impact of shoplifting, the implications it can hold for the store’s employees and for the community. And the store’s representative came to understand John better, too—to see him as an individual and understand the context of his choice.

The healing that occurred during the conference encompassed more than the relationship between John and the store he shoplifted from. John’s mother was on the call too, and John’s recognition of the harm his choices had caused her allowed them to move forward together. Perhaps most importantly, the community itself was transformed by this conference, in that all participants stepped away with a deeper understanding of justice that they could share in the future with their families, friends, colleagues, peers, etc.

John is a senior in high school. He makes good grades, plays sports, and hopes to attend the University of Virginia next year. At least to the outside observer, he does not seem to struggle with addiction, mental illness, or homelessness. It’s easy to hold John up as a model candidate for restorative justice. But the truth is that these things don’t make John more deserving of an alternative process than any other seventeen year old. His future is worth just as much as the future of the kid who already has a criminal record or the kid who got suspended from school.

Everyone deserves the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, repair harm, and find real accountability in their relationships, unconditionally.

Restorative Justice Services

If you have not been referred by a Fairfax County agency, but think restorative justice would be helpful in your situation, visit our Restorative Justice Services Page or contact Samantha Simpore at SSimpore@nvms.us.

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