An attorney by profession, with years of experience working with youth, Bridgette Bowman became the director of Mediation and Restitution Reconciliation Services (MARRS) 6 years ago, anxious to be an advocate in the broken system of juvenile justice. This 23 year-old organization is perhaps the best kept secret in Memphis in regards to working with juveniles in the justice system.
The mission of MARRS is to intervene in the lives of 1st and 2nd time juvenile offenders. This happens through a couple different areas of engagement. The first is through victim-offender mediation. All the kids that MARRS works with are court-referred––meaning MARRS has an exceptional relationship with the local juvenile court. The victim-offender mediation is one of the most transformational aspects of MARRS. When the kids meet with the person they have offended, it is an opportunity for them to realize the impact of their actions, often resulting in, “I didn’t think about it. I’m sorry.” The victim is empowered through this process as well, enabling them to ask questions like “why me?” and also to help determine the consequence for their offender. Most importantly, this interaction opens the doorway to forgiveness. Imagine the transformative power of a victim saying to his/her offender, “I forgive you. I have an expectation that you become better than what you did.” Bridgette Bowman emphasized the power of forgiveness in changing these kids lives, “We’re able to forgive because we have been forgiven.”
Furthermore, MARRS emphasizes character development, leadership, and community service in the kids. “We are broken people,” Bridgette reminds us, “Sometimes character has to be taught and demonstrated.” MARRS youth are required to complete 16 hours of servant leadership or community service. The intent here is to change the hearts of both the offender and the community. “When they commit an offense,” Bridgette states, “they are labeled as ‘bad kids.’ When they go back into the community to serve, it redeems this label.”
This holistic model of mediation and restitution has resulted in a less than 5% recidivism rate for MARRS youth. They serve between 100-150 kids per year, limited only by their referrals and their finances. When asked about the impact of MARRS on the city of Memphis and the local community, Bridgette reflected on how, as a society, we instantly go into retribution mode when someone gets into trouble; we rarely think about the human cost of punishment vs. restoration. MARRS is bringing back the memory of what it’s like to be a child who made a bad choice and all the people who love him/her in spite of it. “MARRS is the community reminder that all of us deserve second chances. We deserve to be forgiven and loved. Which has tremendous power. We are creating a generation of kids that can practice the art of forgiveness and love.” The kids of MARRS are expected to serve without return. They are committed to teaching the importance of character––who you are when nobody’s looking.
The MARRS process of reconciliation naturally fosters relationship. They follow up with kids for 9-12 months after to check in. But, Bridgette notes, the majority reach back out to MARRS to share how well they’re doing. They’ve had kids come back and say, “This program literally saved my life.” MARRS’ embodiment of the love of Christ––loving in spite of, not because of––has changed many of their kids’ minds about Christians. Bridgette spoke of her personal conviction to live out who we say we are, what we say we believe in. As a parent of a child who is a convicted felon, Bridgette knows what it’s like to be afraid your child will never get it, that the world will never treat him fairly. Her personal story has brought Bridgette’s work with MARRS very close to home and has fueled her hope for these kids. “We’re missing so many resources because we’ve blocked so many people out of the American dream. They say a graveyard is the richest place in the world because of all the dreams that have been lost. The prison system is another place like that,” Bridgette shared. Her passion for justice and re-entry is evident in her daily work. “We need compassion, a different set of eyes, and fragile hands to do this work. MARRS simply wants to prepare the soil. We don’t mind dealing with the dirt.”
We’re honored to have Bridgette apply her experience and heart for youth at the National Student Leadership Intensive (NSLI), an intensive for high school students concurrent to the National Conference, in Memphis. She is putting together a panel of kids labeled as juvenile offenders and inviting some of the MARRS kids to participate in the NSLI. You could sense her passion and excitement for these unexpected kids when she said, “They’re gonna be game changers!”