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Freedom Community Center To Offer St. Louis New Model For Restorative Justice

Mike Milton is the founder and CEO of Freedom Community Center, a new organization launching in St. Louis
Mike Milton is the founder and CEO of Freedom Community Center, a new organization launching in St. Louis.

As statewide policy and advocacy director for the St. Louis office of the Bail Project, Mike Milton helped people get out of jail as they awaited trial. Now he wants to help them, and others caught in St. Louis’ cycle of violence, find true healing.

Last month, Milton left the Bail Project, the national nonprofit organization he’s been with since it opened its office here in 2018, to found a new organization. Freedom Community Center hopes to do intensive work with people facing criminal charges in St. Louis — and the people they’re accused of harming. The organization plans to work closely with a few dozen defendants over the next three years, diverting them from jail to survivor-centered therapy and material support.

For a defendant in the criminal justice system, the program would begin if their victim indicates they’re willing to be a part of the diversion program. If the victim says yes, and an assessment suggests the two parties would be a good fit for the program, they would both work with counselors, and sometimes other family members, in an intensive process aimed at what Milton calls a “sense of repair and reconciliation with the person who did the harm.”

Milton said the impetus came directly from his work with the Bail Project. Frequently, he said, staffers realized the same family members who’d called the police for help were the ones attempting to post bail after the arrest.

“That sparked our curiosity — why did that happen,” he explained on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “So we just started asking questions to survivors of harm, and we learned that survivors of harm are actually pragmatic. They know that incarceration does not lead to transformative change, or long-term change. At that moment [when they called the police], what they needed was de-escalation. They did not know they were signing up someone that they loved for being incarcerated.”

John Nanney, director of UMSL's Community Psychological Service.
John Nanney, director of UMSL's Community Psychological Service

By instead offering diversion through what it calls the “Free Us Project,” the Freedom Community Center is partnering with the national Vera Institute for Justice. It will work with the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Community Psychological Service, a nonprofit mental health center staffed by clinical psychology doctoral UMSL students.

John Nanney, director of the clinic and an associate clinical professor at UMSL, said he’s been working closely with Milton on both program design and implementation.

Nanney said the doctoral students will begin by offering assessments to ensure people chosen for the program are a good fit. After that, they plan to offer individually tailored cognitive behavioral therapy designed to treat both PTSD and mechanisms by which trauma contributes to violence, helping people caught up in the criminal justice system learn tools for coping with life.

How the Freedom Community Center Aims to Break the Cycle of Violence
Listen to Mike Milton and John Nanney discuss their work on the air

“The reality of gun violence in America is that it’s marginalized, African American communities, usually poor people of color, who are caught in a cycle,” Nanney said. “They experience trauma, usually from a very early age. Many of the most harrowing stories I’ve ever heard — and I’ve heard a lot of harrowing stories over the years — come from people who, if you just looked at what they just did the other day, you would think they were monsters.” Yet, he added, “There are social and psychological forces that contribute to people engaging in violent behavior, and we have to learn to think about people who engage even in violent behavior as people, who have a history, who have a backstory, who have an enormous amount of suffering, usually. And that suffering is one of the primary determinants, I think, of the tendency to engage in violence.”

Said Milton, “Even those who do harm, typically, are survivors of harm themselves.” By treating the harm they’ve suffered, they may learn not to inflict it.

Participants in the “Free Us Project” are looking at an eight- to 15-month process, though Milton said the Freedom Community Center will stay involved with them even after that, if they’d like.

“It’s meant to get at the root of why someone may have chosen violence, and work them collaboratively to do the hard labor to never do that violence again,” he said. “And so for us, even if a person needs more than 15 months, we will continue. For us, it’s about the relationship aspects of it, the type of treatments that’s necessary, and the social pieces that need to be put in place so a person can no longer choose violence, but choose other options.”

The program has earned buy-in from the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office. The office issued a statement saying: “The Circuit Attorney is committed to implementing innovative ways to hold individuals accountable that lead to increased long-term public safety. Currently, we are working with national organizations like Vera Institute and local social services providers to implement victim-centric restorative justice programs. These programs emphasize offender accountability for wrongdoers, respect for participants, and keeping the victim central throughout the process to repair the relationship between the wrongdoer and victim and reduce future criminal behavior.

“Restorative justice programs have been found to be more effective methods of improving victim-wrongdoer satisfaction, increased wrongdoer compliance with restitution, and decreased recidivism of wrongdoers when compared to more traditional criminal justice approaches.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
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