About Restorative Solutions

Since 2004, YMCA of San Francisco’s Restorative Solutions Department has been on the forefront of mitigating the School-to-Prison Pipeline, implementing restorative solutions that keep youth in school and out of the juvenile justice system. With a 95% completion rate and only 8% recidivism, this innovative program has helped keep over 1,000 youth in school, restoring hope for their future.


Nearly 20 years ago, Marin County’s Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Commission wanted to create a Youth Court, and I’ve had the pleasure of directing it ever since. From humble beginnings, we have grown to work with hundreds of youth and their families and schools, as well as law enforcement and government leaders, as part of a truly innovative approach to juvenile justice reform, making a big impact here in the Bay Area.

It has been nothing short of amazing to see the transformation in the youth we have worked with. It would not have been possible without all the support we’ve received from county and local governments, professionals, administrators, donors, and the hundreds of volunteer hours from youth and professionals alike. Thank you!

The Youth Court does not stand alone, and in 2010, it became the flagship under a larger Restorative Solutions platform that reflects the importance of preventative interventions upstream. Today, we offer middle and high school alternatives to suspension, truancy prevention programs that focus on increasing reading comprehension by the 3rd grade (a strong indicator of future school success) and are working on improving school culture by implementing relationship-centered school community-building circles.

As we, along with the national restorative justice movement, continue to gain momentum, we want to see programs like ours replicated throughout the country and are inviting interested YMCA programs to join us.

Thank you for supporting a more fair and just way of treating our young people.
Don Carney, January 2018


Rising rates of suspension mirror steep increases in incarceration

Young people, particularly young people of color, paid a steep price when our country’s schools joined the so-called “war on drugs” and implemented zero tolerance policies in the 1990’s following the Columbine massacre. Suspensions exploded, and thousands of teens were pushed out of school and into the juvenile justice system.

Overuse of out-of-school suspension is best understood as a proxy indicator flagging four categories of challenges. School climate, social emotional health, trauma and implicit bias are connected to larger issues. We must hold these systems accountable to provide equity.

Solutions For Your Community


A unique peer-driven restorative justice model for juveniles who have taken responsibility for violating the law.

“I believe restorative justice has contributed to our historically low juvenile incarceration rate. It’s a healthy way to resolve conflicts.”
Mike Daly, Marin Chief of Probation

Youth Court is a program driven by student volunteers who lead all aspects of court operations. Probation, police departments, and schools refer cases to the Youth Court; approximately 65% of referrals are drug- and alcohol-related. Juvenile offenders work with a jury of peers to reflect on the poor choices that got them into trouble and craft a restorative plan that repairs the harm caused to others, the community, and themselves. Offenders must also participate on future juries and perform community service as part of their restorative plan. Successful completion of the program results in the juvenile’s record being cleared. Having this safety net for youth in the early stages of criminal behavior can help them turn the corner onto a new path and a successful future.


Students are trained to be jurors, bailiffs, and advocates, preparing them to participate in the Marin County Youth Court program. The strong youth development foundation of this program encourages critical thinking and develops emotional intelligence and leadership skills that increase the odds for success as a young adult.

Advocates are reminded to look beyond the traditional punitive mindset. “We are not here to match time to crime, we are here to match need to resource,” says Director, Don Carney.

YMCA Youth Court Finding Justice: Ending the School to Prison Pipeline

Marin County Youth Court Celebrated by California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye


How to successfully navigate the risk-taking years

“The Youth Court’s Alcohol & Drug Safety Skills Training fills the role of the parent in educating kids about alcohol and drugs. The workshop content could be shared with all children, not just those who have already begun drinking or using drugs. Their parents need the information, too.”
Marin Grand Jury Report: The Marin Youth Alcohol Crisis

Seventy-two percent of parents report talking to their middle school students about drugs and alcohol but this percentage drops dramatically by the ninth grade, when it may be most important.

Many youth are engaged in high levels of alcohol and drug experimentation. While substance use can be common during the teen years, with guidance, the dangers of experimentation can be mitigated. Parents learn how to be comfortable and confident discussing this critical issue with their teen. They are also taught effective methods to reduce their teen’s substance use and increase is or her safety. Youth develop strategies and practice safety skills that can protect their lives and those of their own friends.

Our Harm Reduction approach to addressing teen substance use gives parents and youth an effective platform for having real discussions about what teens are facing in today’s environment by having parents share a description of the environment they had to navigate during their own risk-taking years (12-25 years old). We help establish a safe space for parents to listen to their own children’s reflections on the drug and alcohol landscape they are experiencing. This approach creates a productive and open discussion about the effects of substances on the developing brain and the best ways for teenagers to keep each other safe during their risk-taking years.


Youth Court high school students produce and provide peer-to-peer prevention trainings to middle school students.  Since California legalized marijuana, our training, CORPORATE WEED IS TARGETING YOUR BRAIN: FIGHT BACK! is in high demand. 

Solutions For Schools


Addressing discipline without alienating students from school community

By providing an alternative to suspensions, we can significantly increase the odds that our most vulnerable students will remain connected to their school communities, ultimately graduating and becoming productive citizens.

Since implementing suspension alternatives through the eight county middle and high schools, Marin County has seen more than a 40% reduction in suspensions. In the Novato schools the drop has been even more dramatic seeing suspensions drop in three years by 58.4%.


Restorative Circles open the channels of communication between teens that violate school policy and the school community. Most importantly, they offer a chance for individuals to reflect and (re)connect. We teach young people how to effectively employ restorative solutions using socio-emotional skills to influence the behavior of their peers.

Circles empower students to use positive peer influences to support students when they have violated school policies and give them the option of using a restorative process to address the issue. This insures students take responsibility for their actions and are accountable to the victim and the school community. In doing so, the student’s success rate improves dramatically and the school climate becomes more healthy.

Restorative consequences include school-based community service, letters of apology, reflective essays, tutoring, and an opportunity to support other students referred to the program. When the student has successfully completed the program, the suspension is removed from their school record. Strategies employed in the early school years help students learn a variety of skills to address conflict, create a school culture of accountability, and prevent young people from entering the juvenile justice system.


Creating conditions for school success


Reading proficiency is a major indicator of school success. Data shows that children who cannot read by the third grade are four times less likely to graduate than students who can. Failing to graduate is a high predictor for contact with the juvenile justice system and incarceration as an adult.  Sixty-eight percent of men behind bars did not complete high school. 

Kids can’t learn if they don’t show up. By using Restorative Solutions to mitigate truancy in the elementary years, we increase the odds that youth will be reading-proficient by the end of third grade. 



“Positive school climates not only minimize unnecessary suspensions and expulsions, but also reduce disorder in the classroom and bolster learning.” 
– Arne Duncan, Former U.S. Secretary of Education

Community Building Circles provide the foundation for developing positive school culture. Research shows this process increases school connectedness, develops positive attitudes toward learning, creates a willingness to use conflict resolution skills, reduces inappropriate risk–taking and violent behaviors, decreases discipline referrals and school suspensions, and results in higher scores in language, reading and math as well as overall GPA.

A student not reading at grade level by the end of the third grade is 4x less likely to graduate high school on time and it’s 6x less likely for students from low-income families. High school dropouts are 63x more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates.