Mediation groups help resolve community disputes out of court

More Americans than ever before are using a grass-roots system of justice that encourages the proliferation of ''peacemakers'' in urban American neighbor-hoods.

This system, called conflict resolution, is designed to increase communication and trust among neighbors who otherwise might not meet and talk over their differences. It has been used as a means of exploring solutions to local controversies and personal arguments between relatives, friends, or neighbors.

Four years after a United States Justice Department study concluded that mediation services can offer a speedy, low-cost alternative to the courts to settle citizen disputes, conflict-resolution panels are continuing to take root in cities across the country.

In 1983 there were about 200 such mediation centers in American cities, and experts estimate that the number may double by the end of this year.

''The movement is becoming widespread and is taking off all over the country, '' says Roger Nober, a staff intern at the American Bar Association's (ABA) dispute resolution committee.

Adds Lawrence Freedman, an ABA staff member: ''For every center that fails, it seems there are one-and-a-half or two that are born.'' Of those centers that do fail, most close because of lack of funding rather than lack of interest, experts say.

Neighborhood mediation groups are designed to offer an established and secure place to air and solve a variety of local, relatively minor disputes - barking dogs, noisy neighbors, landlord-tenant arguments, property quarrels, vandalism, and others.

Most programs are structured to enable two or more disputants to present their sides of an argument to community volunteers who are trained in conflict-resolution techniques. There are no fees and no need for lawyers. Participation is voluntary, as is compliance. The mediators steer the disputants toward a resolution by trying to identify common ground.

In the blighted Lower Marketview Heights section of Rochester, N.Y., Dexter Martinez and his staff members were able to intervene in an escalating argument between two 16-year-old girls who were preparing to square off over a boyfriend. One of the girls described the problem in a letter: ''We got into a fight, and we were going to fight again, and our families were getting involved as well. So it was going to become a big family feud.''

She added, ''If it hadn't been for Dexter, who knows what could have happened.''

Mr. Martinez, who had been trained in conflict resolution at a program in San Francisco, says he was able to get the two families talking to each other and that led to an eventual rapprochement. According to the letter, the two girls are now friends.

''It works in a community where, normally, black and Hispanic and white people don't usually work together,'' Martinez says.

Despite the growing popularity of mediation groups, they still handle but a tiny fraction of the thousands of cases undertaken by American courts. As such, they have not had significant effect in reducing the burgeoning number of regular court cases.

Mediation experts say conflict resolution is not meant to be a replacement for the established judicial system, which continues to handle the vast majority of cases in cities where mediation groups are operating. Rather, they say, the mediation services work in concert with the criminal-justice system, often taking cases directly from the courts on referral.

Mediation officials say their organizations are often better suited than the courts or the police to handle some minor disputes that may take hours of heated negotiation to resolve.

More important, mediation workers say, the groups provide an opportunity to address neighborhood disputes before they escalate into violent crimes. The workers say their organizations serve as a neighborhood pressure gauge, not only permitting aggrieved neighbors a forum where they can air their disputes, but also offering an opportunity for citizens to address local controversies before problems become more serious.

''It enables people to live together more peacefully,'' says Jay Schonberg, director of the Cambridge (Mass.) Dispute Settlement Center.

''What we are experimenting with is building or restoring a capacity for people in communities to manage their own conflicts without being dependent on law-enforcement agencies, the courts, or lawyers,'' says Raymond Shonholtz, who founded the Community Boards project, which operates in 22 San Francisco neighborhoods (about one-third of the city).

''You really have an opportunity to intervene early in a dispute and provide for the deescalation of a conflict right in the community where the conflict takes place,'' he says.

Last year, Community Boards, which trained Rochester's Martinez, worked to resolve some 550 different neighborhood conflicts. The group conducted 125 hearings, and more than 80 percent of the disputants eventually signed a formal written resolution settling the dispute.

In 1980 Congress passed the Dispute Resolution Act in an effort to encourage the establishment of local mediation centers. But when it came to allocating funds to run the programs, Congress balked.

Because of the lack of government funds, the conflict-resolution centers have come largely from local efforts with some state help. In 1981, New York enacted a law that provides for up to 50 percent state funding to run conflict-resolution and mediation projects.

Two weeks ago, the California Senate passed a bill calling for allocation of residents in setting up their own neighborhood mediation groups. The bill, which has bipartisan support, has gone to the governor for his consideration.

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