A Crime for Help

A School of Law alumnus develops a nationally recognized restorative justice program for the City of Los Angeles.

May 2, 2016  | 4 min read

Jose Egurbide (JD ’95) had just graduated from Pepperdine School of Law when he began working with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office first as a senior law clerk and, since June 1996, as a deputy city attorney. “While I had not considered government work as an option prior to that point,” he reveals, “the prospect of being able to handle my own trials immediately upon joining the City Attorney’s Office really appealed to me.” His interview with former city attorney and Los Angeles mayor James Hahn (’72, JD ’75) proved successful, and he began handling criminal trials from then on.

As he managed projects related to assistance programs for Downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row area, Egurbide saw firsthand the shortcomings that the traditional justice system has when it comes to permanently resolving various community issues. This inspired him to pursue the development of non-traditional criminal justice solutions when dealing with certain types of offenders, and as years have passed, he has become more deeply involved in mediation-based, alternative prosecution programs.

He explains that the traditional criminal justice system focuses on “seeing crimes as violations of the law, which in turn create guilt and corresponding punishments.” Alternative prosecution programs, however, view crimes as violations against the victim or the community at large, and are primarily focused on repairing the damages and on rehabilitation, rather than mere punishment.

This approach, known as restorative justice, is designed to help offenders become productive members of their communities, therefore reducing the risk of recidivism. Egurbide offers that the most effective way to achieve this is through “competency development,” which involves granting offenders access to a vast range of community resources previously unavailable to them. These resources include high school diplomas, counseling sessions, parenting courses, and job training, which are then combined with any imposed community service work, reflection essays, or apology letters meant to help repair the harm they have caused the victims and the community.

In 2014 Egurbide was back in the courtrooms, protecting the rights of the frail and those unable to adequately take care of themselves under California’s Unfair Competition Law when Los Angeles city attorney Mike Feuer commissioned him to develop from scratch a new post-arrest, pre-filing alternative prosecution program for select low-grade misdemeanors, including petty theft, vandalism, graffiti, minor in possession of alcohol, and disturbing the peace. After reviewing similar initiatives from other government offices in the United States, the Neighborhood Justice Program (NJP) was developed.

Within the scope of NJP, Egurbide explains that “participants and victims get to discuss the crime and the impact of that crime, in a safe, intimate encounter where the participant feels supported, making it easier for them to accept responsibility, express remorse, and respond more positively.” This process requires the involvement of trained volunteer mediators, who facilitate communications between the offenders, victims, and three panelists. The panelists are community members trained by NJP on restorative justice principles, in order to ensure that they properly and accurately understand their responsibilities.

Egurbide explains that the process is voluntary and confidential. “If the parties agree on a series of obligations at the end of the discussion, the participant signs a restorative justice agreement and [will have] two months to complete them,” he remarks. “Once the participant successfully completes their obligations, the diversion is deemed successful and no charges are filed against the participant for that offense.”

While NJP has a 92 percent participant success rate for fulfilling these obligations, if participants either disagree with the obligations or fail to complete them within the two-month time frame, the matter is referred back to the Los Angeles City Attorney Criminal Branch for filing and prosecution.

After only a year in operation, NJP participants had already served over 5,000 hours of community service throughout Los Angeles as one way of repairing the harm caused to their community. “There is a tremendous cost savings associated with redirecting these cases away from a traditional criminal justice system that is already overburdened with the volume of criminal matters being processed,” Egurbide explains.

Of all the positive impacts the program has generated thus far, Feuer is most proud of NJP’s impact on reducing recidivism and turning lives around. “It has changed the lives of its participants—those who have committed the crimes in the first place—as well as the lives of the victims and the community panelists who are prescribing what the participants should do to improve the community in which the offense has occurred,” he says.

“This is a chance for communities to own the results,” Feuer continues, encouraging community members to volunteer to serve in the program after training. “There is so much immediacy over the outcome when it’s constructed this way.”

The program has also enjoyed national attention, as it was one of only four recipients of the Bureau of Justice Assistance Smart Prosecution grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. Additionally, Los Angeles has been nationally recognized as a mentor site, and Egurbide hopes that these local efforts will encourage the development of additional restorative justice prosecution models across the United States.

The Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office hopes that the program will continue to have a positive influence within the community. “We’re going to be evaluating the program, and we’d like to see it expand,” Feuer explains. “Jose is playing a leadership role in making that happen.”