A long, winding and unexpected road took Tucson native John Peck from the Old Pueblo to Ajo, a small Arizona community of 3,300 people, just 40 miles from the Mexican border. From editor, to economic developer, community activist and nonprofit leader, he now finds himself sitting on the justice court bench, as a restorative justice advocate and justice of the peace.
Peck was ready to do something new when he made the move to Ajo in 2008. He was a journalist and managing editor at the Arizona Daily Star from 1974-1991. He spent the next three years on a family farm in Indiana, co-founding a governmental economic development unit and a community foundation. Back in Tucson by 1994, he was associate director of the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona before joining the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona in 1995 as associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, where he initiated programs including the Southern Arizona Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, the LGBT Jewish Inclusion Project (later renamed JPride), and with Nancy Mellan, the Jewish Arts Alliance. Later he was JFSA’s senior vice president for community relations and strategic planning.
Peck moved to Ajo as chief operating officer at the International Sonoran Desert Alliance, which focuses on economic development through the arts. He moved on to the Ajo Copper News and also served on the Western Pima County Community Council. He served as an intern for a presiding justice of the peace and when his mentor’s term ended in 2014, Peck ran for the post and was elected.
There’s more than enough to keep him busy dealing with drug trafficking, drug addiction and domestic violence. Ajo has a high rate of unemployment and large numbers of vacant and neglected houses following the mine closing in the 1980s.
He’d heard of the restorative justice movement earlier in his newspaper days. Restorative justice personalizes a crime by having the victims, offenders and community mediate a restitution agreement to the satisfaction of each. And in the ’90s he’d had a memorable discussion with a Jerusalem attorney on restoration based on changing behavior and making restitution versus punishment.
In Ajo, a local community advocate and a behavioral health leader introduced Peck to Circles of Peace, a restorative justice model that enhanced his embrace of the concept.
Community counselor and behavioral health clinician Emily Saunders says, “with the respect John has garnered in Ajo, and his integrity, he’s giving people a vision of what’s possible with restorative practices. John exemplifies the spirit of restorative practices.
He nurtures relationships and sees each person’s unique gifts, calling our whole community into more meaningful connection.”
Saunders generated a $25,000 grant from Education First and the NoVo Foundation to bring the Circles of Peace model to all Ajo classrooms and staff. “The grant allowed us to invest further in restorative practices. This includes less formal to more formal restorative tools, all designed to strengthen relationships on campus, from restorative language that helps students self-reflect and assume healthy responsibility for harms caused, to peacebuilding circles to conferences where students and staff work together to repair harm and rebuild relationships,” says Saunders.
Another aspect of the restorative approach is the Community Justice Board for Pima County. This allows juvenile offenders with nonviolent first offences to work with a community board and the probation department to stop problematic behaviors and develop and track progress on attainable goals including restitution, says Peck.
Even better is a true diversion before a crime, adds Peck, and he is excited about a new project that brings county sheriff’s department officers into the school to work with students to examine behaviors and develop plans.
Peck discovered that a truant teen, because of struggles with math and science, didn’t like going to school. Providing tutoring made perfect sense to Peck, but it didn’t fit in the school’s budget. Although community summits are not part the court’s nominal function, says Peck, they serve as a means to focus on issues. So he initiated a summit on tutoring, and drew upon the many retirees living in Ajo to find tutors.
In the midst of his busy work life, Peck renews himself through reading, writing, and making art in his studio a few minutes walk from the courthouse. A mixed media piece he created, honoring Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, titled “St. Notorious,” was the People’s Choice award at a recent art show at Art Under the Arches Gallery. He currently is writing essays on famous justices, collaborating with Jay Rochlin for the artwork.
Peck loves the scalability of being in a small town, similar to when he worked for Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, with the feeling of mishpocheh, of family: “You can see the ripples that happen,” he says.
Deborah Mayaan is a writer and artist in Tucson. She is also a certified health coach with the Gupta Programme and a certified Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises provider. Contact her at deborahmayaan.com.