STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's come back to the United States now and note that anybody who spends much time watching television in America learns how the justice system works.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW & ORDER")
STEVEN ZIRNKILTON: (As Narrator) In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups, the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.
INSKEEP: That's from the long-running show "Law & Order." The attorney general in Washington, D.C., is trying to change the system that we know so well, experimenting with a new way to dispense law and order. Local prosecutors have developed a program to connect young offenders with their victims, bringing them together to work out plans to move forward without jail time. Here's NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine says he started as a reluctant innovator.
KARL RACINE: I think my exact words was that I think the idea is a little hokey.
JOHNSON: After all, Racine's an elected official, and he says every day he comes to work with this on his mind.
RACINE: We are committed to public safety.
JOHNSON: But the D.C. attorney general says he's convinced there can be a better way to keep the community safe. It's called restorative justice. And here in Washington, it brings together young people accused of breaking the law with the people they hurt.
RACINE: Unlike traditional prosecution, restorative justice is really focused on the victim.
JOHNSON: There are a few ground rules. Victims have to agree to participate in the sessions. The program is only open to juveniles who don't use guns during their crimes. And if young people follow through on the plan they develop with their victims, their charges get dismissed.
RACINE: Our objective in our prosecutions, particularly since we're dealing with the prosecution of young people, is to put them in a position to learn from their mistakes - i.e., rehabilitation.
JOHNSON: Prosecutors across the country have been experimenting with restorative justice, but Racine is the first to create a unit within his own office - right down the hall from the lawyers who appear in court to prosecute. Seema Gajwani runs the group of seven people. Every week, they get together in a circle to discuss their cases in meetings like this one.
SEEMA GAJWANI: So I know there were two cases that were up to today, one defendant...
JOHNSON: Gajwani says that people used to doing things the traditional way have started to accept the new approach, people like Erika Clark.
ERIKA CLARK: I don't remember a time when I didn't want to be a prosecutor.
JOHNSON: Clark has spent three years in the attorney general's office, but her commitment to the law goes back.
CLARK: My mother first suggested it to me, I think when I was maybe 6 or 7. On the playground, I would try to stick up for kids who were being bullied. And just injustice in general has been very upsetting to me from a very young age.
JOHNSON: Clark remembers her first impression of restorative justice. She was skeptical.
CLARK: Oh, OK. So we were not going to prosecute you. We're going to sit around in a circle with, like, the hippies down the hallway. And we're going to have a talk, and then you don't have any punishment.
JOHNSON: But with experience, Clark says, she's become a convert to the idea.
CLARK: I've come to believe that the public is actually safer if we can do a successful restorative justice conference rather than less safe - because if you can actually change the hearts and minds of this young person or these young people, then the hope is that they are less likely to reoffend.
JOHNSON: The attorney general's office says early data is showing signs the program is a success. And it's starting to include more serious offenses, including assaults on police officers. Jason Dixon is with the Metro Transit Police. He's also the victim of a crime. About a year-and-a-half ago, Dixon tried to break up a fight on the subway among a group of kids. Dixon got in between the kids in the scuffle, and he bore the brunt of the assault. He tore his rotator cuff and strained his knee. But when prosecutors called, Dixon opted for a restorative justice session rather than take the case to court.
JASON DIXON: If this was my son and somebody saw an opportunity to help him, I would hope that person would take that opportunity. You know? And I saw something in this young man that I felt like it was enough to me to say, hey, I know I'm injured, but I want to see how I can change his life to the point where he doesn't make a decision like this again.
JOHNSON: Afterward, the young man agreed to call Dixon once a week for six months, avoiding a possible criminal record. In the end, the officer wound up offering parenting advice to the 16-year-old who assaulted him, a new father himself.
DIXON: I really feel like this program opens up doors for kids that don't - have a lot of doors shut in their face.
JOHNSON: This program is underway in a city where police interactions with young people have become very public and very controversial.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: All right. This video of D.C. police running down a 9-year-old and handcuffing him is going viral. It is the third such incident in about four months where D.C.'s police practices with children are being questioned.
JOHNSON: The police department declined an interview request about that issue, but the attorney general's office is reviewing how the police handle encounters with young people.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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