Kadonna Wilson was nervous about the prospect of standing before a judge earlier this year. The 22-year-old from St. Paul had never been to court, but she was facing a misdemeanor charge for allegedly breaking her neighbor's window after the pair argued.
But before the City Attorney's Office began its traditional prosecution process, Wilson was offered an alternative: If she was willing to accept accountability for her actions in a meeting with community members and agree with them on a plan to make amends, the city would expunge her criminal record.
"I was a lot more comfortable," Wilson said. "I was sitting with regular people like me. It felt like everyone was equal, and everyone wanted to help me."
Wilson is one of the few hundred people who have enrolled in St. Paul's ETHOS, a quietly growing program that removes certain nonviolent misdemeanor cases from the courts system and routes them through a justice process led by city residents.
The program was launched in 2019 and recently expanded to become one of the nation's first restorative justice programs to handle gun possession crimes, said Tamara Larsen, a supervising attorney in the city attorney's community justice unit.
"The moment a person takes the gun, pulls it out, puts a hand on the trigger, it's too late," Larsen said. "We've all, as a society, failed. We want to do something at a previous stage to help us find the root causes — why does this kid feel like he needs to have a gun?"
St. Paul prosecutors identify offenders who might be a good fit for the program, then ask for victims' consent to direct the case to ETHOS. If both parties agree, coordinators from the nonprofit Dispute Resolution Center (DRC) in St. Paul arrange a "circle" meeting to discuss the offense and agree on a set of outcomes.
ETHOS circles consist of the offender and at least three volunteer community members, who receive a small stipend for their time. The groups typically meet for two or three hours, said Richard McLemore II, who underwent DRC training to facilitate meetings as a "circle keeper."
The types of cases funneled to ETHOS vary widely and have included theft, property damage, dog bites and noise violations, according to the city's community-first public safety dashboard.
Resolutions have been similarly mixed, ranging from apology letters to career training to monetary restitution. Participants must prove that they completed their circle agreements, or their cases could return to court.
"What this does is it gives people an opportunity to see justice — meaning measurable accountability — but it's not overreaching, overarching, and it doesn't eviscerate the person," McLemore said, noting that even misdemeanor criminal records can affect a person's ability to secure housing, jobs and other opportunities.
ETHOS, which stands for engaging community, taking responsibility, healing, overcoming obstacles and sustainable solutions, is one of many efforts in St. Paul and Ramsey County aiming to rehabilitate offenders instead of punishing them. Advocates of these approaches, such as City Attorney Lyndsey Olson, say they reduce recidivism by engaging people in their neighborhoods.
"There's that real sense of they feel forgiven," she said. "They feel like they have a way to atone and that they're moving forward with a sense of community."
But others have said such programs do not do enough to discourage repeat offenses. A new Ramsey County juvenile diversion initiative has drawn criticism from some, including Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who say it puts the public at risk by allowing dangerous youth to return to the streets.
Only 3% of ETHOS participants have been charged with a crime within one year of completing the program, according to Olson. That's far below the national recidivism rate, which she said could be as high as 40%, though St. Paul's data are relatively limited by the program's newness and small size.
After being interrupted by the pandemic in 2020, the city is on track to triple the number of participants in ETHOS in 2021. Olson said she hopes St. Paul can gradually keep increasing the number and types of cases the program accepts.
Wilson said her circle provided resources to help her seek out new housing, connected her with mental health resources and agreed she would write a reflection.
"At first, I wasn't really interested, but it was really opposite from what I expected," she said. "They actually let me have a voice, and they wanted to make sure I didn't run into this situation again."