An Interview With Attorney Jon Powell

By Jared Simmons

Attorney Jon Powell serves as the director of the Restorative Justice Clinic.

Jon Powell

The program receives referrals from the juvenile justice system, juvenile court, and Wake County schools and conducts victim impact and reentry circles in prisons and the community.

The goals of the project are to:

• Give juveniles the opportunity to take responsibility for and become accountable for their actions.

• Give victims the opportunity to learn about and be intimately involved in the outcome of their case.

• Give all parties the opportunity to create an agreement that will address and resolve the harm caused by criminal activity.

• Involve law students in the process of victim/offender mediation as active mediators.

Throughout this dialogue process, law students are involved as active co-mediators with trained law school faculty. This clinical experience provides valuable experience to law students in learning ways to approach and resolve problems which occur from criminal activity.

Part of the mission of the Restorative Justice Clinic is to help spread the word of restorative justice throughout the state of North Carolina and to assist others in the state in starting restorative justice programming. Jon has spoken on many occasions to various groups on the topic of restorative justice and has assisted organizations in starting mediation programs based on the Campbell model. Campbell Law School was privileged to host the third National Conference on Restorative Justice in June of 2011, and Powell was the lead planner.

Prior to working with the project, Jon practiced law in Wake and Harnett counties. Jon’s primary focus was in criminal defense with an emphasis on juvenile law. Mr. Powell received his law degree from Campbell University in 1998. Prior to attending law school, Jon worked for Carolina Power and Light Company, during which time he received his B.A. in Communication from North Carolina State University.

Below is an interview with Jon from December 2020.

Q&A on Restorative Justice With Jon Powell 

Question: A common definition of “restorative justice” is “a system of criminal justice which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at-large.” What is your definition of “restorative justice” and what does it mean to you?

Answer: It isn’t necessarily a part of the “system of criminal justice.” One day it might be. I hope we can move toward a system where restorative justice is the main approach. New Zealand is there, where the traditional system is an alternative, opposed to the other way around.  Wake County Schools has implemented restorative practices in a major way across their system.

The rehabilitation of offenders is a healthy by-product. The purpose is to be victim-centered and to understand the harm and to understand the level of the offense.

Question: What work do you do through Campbell Law and the community to advance restorative justice in North Carolina?

Answer: We have a two-pronged approach. The clinic’s first approach is to provide direct services to our referral sources in the community. The second part is education and training for the community. We receive referrals from courts and schools when a bad act has occurred that has brought harm to someone. Our primary tool in these cases is called facilitated dialogue.  We use a victim / offender approach in meeting with the parties one-on-one to begin with to prepare them for an eventual face to face meeting with each other to understand the harm and then to work toward repairing that harm. Our prevention tool is called circle process, and this is used as both a direct service and as an educational tool to empower schools and others to deliver restorative practices on their own. Our law students also receive three hours of in class instruction during the semester and then are involved in all aspects of the live work.

Question: How has COVID-19 affected your Restorative Justice Clinic efforts in surrounding educational institutions and local communities?

Answer: It has had a profound negative impact. All of the work that we do is in systems that had to shut down. Our school caseload went from huge to zero. We had our first death row circle, and then it got shut down. It has shut down all of our prison population interactions. Since COVID-19, the prison circles have not been able to occur, including the circles at Central Prison, Butner, and Pope. These circles help inmates tell their stories and understand each other. However, we have had some juvenile referrals recently, and this has resulted in a different approach for students and how to see a real case.

Training is required for our participants through PREA to get volunteers to participate in circle processes at Youth Detention Centers in the State. As 2021 begins, we think that we may be able to resume some of these activities, including training new staff. Wake County’s Reentry Program has started to implement circle processes for folks coming through their programs. Circle processes in the restorative justice class have worked well in a virtual setting. We implement everything the same way in a virtual setting, including a virtual “talking piece.” We were able to conduct one circle in a lecture hall that was socially distanced.

Question: How has the virtual platform affected victim-offender mediation?

Answer: We’ve given the participant the choice to do either approach. We’ve been able to have some face-to-face meetings at the Edgecombe Youth Development Center, but everything else has been done virtually. One issue is that you cannot guarantee confidentiality in a virtual setting, and it has impacted our approaches. Hybrid approaches have been used if possible. You get a lot of information in non-verbal ways, which has been impacted when approaching these cases in a virtual setting.

Question: Have you seen the impacts of COVID-19 in Black and Indigenous communities in your restorative justice initiatives this year?

Answer: It has had a huge impact on restorative justice work. When you consider the different communities and race, the vast majority of our referrals have been people and children of color. They are disproportionately affected by the lack of services. In the Wake County school system, there has been some CARES Act funding to address the impact of COVID-19 on families. The school system has been able to contract with circle process providers with families. This is a direct result from the effects of COVID-19, and personally, I have been involved with three or four so far with more scheduled in the future.

Question: Youth of color are 2.5 times more likely to be referred to juvenile court than white youth. How has this impacted your work in restorative justice initiatives and approaches?

Answer: The racial disparities are obvious, and most of our cases are children of color. We are still seeing children of color more than white children. Instead of sending more children into the system, we are helping a lot of children stay out of the system. The lack of having that resource because of COVID-19 is a detriment.

Final thoughts: The fastest growth of restorative justice practices are in our public schools and school systems as a whole, and that is an encouraging fact. That is where most of our children are, and it is an effective way to keep kids in school. I hope that restorative justice practices are continuing in these systems in the future. Specifically, looking at raising the minimum age from six to ten is a positive step. We need to implement more training for our circle processes, and it would be a good investment to pay people to train more staff so they can implement these practices for themselves. As effective as facilitative dialogue is, circle processes are more effective, and we’ve seen cases fall dramatically.