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Restorative justice services now open to young adults

Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project began taking cases involving adults up to 26 years old last fall.

Brian Andrews sitting at his desk.
Brian Andrews, executive director of Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project in Brainerd, sits at his desk Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, and discusses the nonprofit's recent expansion of services and his hopes for the organization's future.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

BRAINERD — Scientists say the human brain isn’t fully developed until a person is about 25 years old.

That knowledge, paired with the desire to give second chances to those who need it, drove Brian Andrews to expand his restorative justice nonprofit to serve young adults in addition to kids.

Andrews is the executive director of Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project, a Brainerd-based nonprofit that works with first-time juvenile offenders in Crow Wing County to repair harm they created from offenses like theft, property damage, assault, alcohol and marijuana consumption and certain traffic violations. Kids who are referred to the organization by the county attorney’s office, police departments or school districts meet with facilitators, community volunteers and those affected to discuss the incident and determine how to move forward so the offender can take accountability and those victimized can heal.

Since taking over as the organization’s leader in 2020, Andrews focused on growing the program to serve as many people as possible and be the best community resource it can be.

“We want to see change across the board in our community,” he said during an interview Thursday, Jan. 27. “We want to see connection; we want to see a sense of belonging. … I want to be involved in any way that I can to repair the harm and build the strongest, healthiest community we can.”

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The nonprofit’s board of directors had the same vision when developing a strategic plan about a year and a half ago, wanting to figure out how to help even more members of the community.

The idea Andrews put forward to meet that goal was geared toward young adults up to the age of 26, a population that doesn’t have many diversion resources in the area, Board Chair Steve Berg said.

I want to be involved in any way that I can to repair the harm and build the strongest, healthiest community we can.
Brian Andrews, executive director of Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project

While there are drug programs for those types of offenders, the same resources don’t exist for, say, a college student who got into a scrape and might be in danger of losing financial aid or other educational opportunities.

After meeting with county and city attorneys, looking at other restorative justice programs throughout the state and ironing out the details, local restorative justice leaders began taking theft cases involving adults up to 26 last fall.

“It’s in its infancy, but it’s a big, big move for LARJP, having never expanded outside of what we’ve done,” Andrews said.

A special team of trained facilitators is in place to take part in the community forums that happen with each case, and five adults have made use of the service so far.

The restorative justice program is completely voluntary, and those who go through are typically referred to the nonprofit by school officials, law enforcement officers or local attorneys. The goals are to keep the cases out of an already backed up court system and work with those who were harmed in any way through the offenders’ actions to ultimately create a stronger community.

“We have an opportunity to build the community, grow awareness and break the stigma that is attached to going to court. It’s an ongoing kind of trauma that happens when you have to go to court, even for people that aren’t going there for anything bad,” Andrews said, drawing on his own personal experiences with substance abuse and understanding the power of giving someone a second chance.

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Andrews wants those he works with — kids and now adults, too — to be seen for who they are and not for what they’ve done; and to create an open, inclusive environment for everyone to be their own, unique self.

And when that happens, everyone benefits, Berg noted.

“Anything that happens when these cases happen, whether it be a theft or whether it be an assault, you are hurting the community as a whole,” Berg said, adding reaching out to those involved and repairing that hurt will also affect the community as a whole and make Crow Wing County a better place for all residents.

Looking to the future

While the recent expansion is a step in the right direction for the Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project, both Andrews and Berg still want to do more.

Berg hopes there are opportunities for the nonprofit to be involved on the prevention side of things, to stop these incidents from happening in the first place. Partnerships with other area organizations, like Brainerd Lakes Area Drug Education, he said, are a step toward that goal.

Andrews continues to look at what sectors of the community are still untapped in terms of restorative justice services. The organization only serves Crow Wing County right now, but he would like to see that area grow.

His kids go to school in Pillager — which is in Cass County — and Andrews said he struggles knowing kids there don’t have the same resources as those at Brainerd, Crosby and Pequot Lakes when they get in trouble simply because of the program’s reach.

“So we’ve been doing a lot of collaborating with different agencies and different schools and different counties, really trying to ultimately find out how we can continue to impact our county first, but what are we missing and who is missing out on what we have to offer?” he said.

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For more information on Lakes Area Restorative Justice Project or to learn how to get involved, visit www.larjp.org or call 218-454-4145.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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