Involved Communities Support Vermont's Restorative Justice Panels

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Involved Communities Support Vermont's Restorative Justice Panels

Involved Communities Support Vermont's Restorative Justice Panels

Yvonne Byrd, director of the Montpelier Community Justice Center, Karen Vastine, the community justice coordinator in Burlington, and Marc Wennberg, director of the St. Alban’s Community Justice Center, explain how volunteers help craft restorative responses to crime and conflict in Vermont.

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ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi, I'm Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation, and today I’m lucky to have three guests from Vermont, all of whom are involved with community driven justice centers.

With me is Yvonne Byrd, director of the Montpelier Community Justice Center, and Karen Vastine, who is the community justice coordinator in Burlington, and Mark Wennberg, who is the director of the St. Albans Community Justice Center.

Nice to have you all here.

ALL: Thank you, nice to be here.

WOLF: So your work in creating and running some of Vermont's 15 community justice centers has made you guys experts in involving the community in the delivery of justice. What is a community justice center. Yvonne, I thought you might want to answer that.

YVONNE BYRD: The community justice center is charged with delivering restorative responses to conflict and crime, and a restorative response would be basically having the people involved, with the support of community, come up with the best, the most positive resolution to a negative situation.

WOLF: Why involve the community in the first place, Karen?

KAREN VASTINE: Well, I wonder too if it's just important to add that victims are a very important component of our community and that they are also involved in restorative justice. As a matter of fact, it's an opportunity for the offender to make direct amends to the victim, if the victim so chooses to be engaged in that way.

And I believe that, in terms of involving community members in restorative justice and helping to hold low level offenders accountable, or any kind of offenders accountable, that what it's about is empowering your community. And I think that it brings the community also closer to the offender.

So one thing that we know is that if somebody is in isolation, that if they don't feel connected to their community, that they are less likely to change their behavior. So having the community members involved actually shows the participant or the offender that there's a reason for caring and wanting to change their behavior. And I think, also, that it helps to link them in a more positive, more meaningful way to their community if they don't already have that linkage.

WOLF: Also, maybe we can be a little more specific about how the community is, in fact, involved in the reparative justice panels. So maybe Mark can just give a brief description of how, how they work and explain how the community is involved?

MARC WENNBERG: So restorative justice panels or restorative boards receive referrals from multiple sources. It could be their pre-charge from the police or the state's attorney, or post-adjudication directly from the judge or the probation or parole department.

The reparative panel/ restorative justice board is volunteer-driven, volunteer-led, although there are staff present at the meetings, in most cases, where, working with the offender and if the victim wants to participate, the victim as well, we identify what happened, who was affected by what happened, how were they affected, what do they need for the harm to be repaired, and who's responsibility is it to repair this harm, as well as what is this person going to do so that something like this doesn't happen again? So how are they taking concrete changes in their own life?

They collectively, and in a consensus fashion, develop a reparative contract, which is a set up specific activities that the offender is going to go through, is going to complete, in order to fulfill their contract agreement.

And they typically, typically have about 90 days to complete that, at which time they come back, they meet again with the group, and talk about what they've learned from the process, demonstrate the specific achievables that they were asked to do, and then they're at least finished with our aspect of the restorative process.

WOLF: And what's a typical sentence? I suppose it depends on the offense.

WENNBERG: It's not so much a sentence as an agreement. Often it involves, perhaps, a letter of apology, perhaps a project that helps them to get a better understanding of how they affected either the victim or the community.

Sometimes the victim will specifically ask for something that they need from the process. Sometimes it's community service. It could be a creative project as well that taps into the offender's creative abilities.

WOLF: And are these all low-level offenses or do they cover the gamut?

BYRD: I guess it depends on how you define the offense. Post-adjudicated, we have people with DUI 2, sometimes DUI 3, which I think is a pretty serious offense.

WOLF: So when you say post-adjudicated, they've already been found guilty in court and then as part of their …

BYRD: … sentence from the judge, the judge orders that they participate in the reparative process.

And in my mind there's a big difference between a sentence which is punitive and going back to your community and talking with, sometimes the victim, other affected parties from your community, about what you did.

When you go through the court process, immediately you become the defendant and that's what you vigorously do, is defend yourself.

Either I didn't do it unless you can prove it, and if you can prove that I did it, well it's because of, you know, this, that, or the other, you know? I was drunk or, you know, I needed it, or - so the actual effect of what you did and what was wrong with it, and the people that you hurt never even comes into the conversation.

So if you end there, with that sentence, the person has stayed disconnected from what was wrong with what they did and often come out of the criminal justice system considering themselves a victim of that system and mostly concerned by how they've been impacted by the punishment, by the court process, whatever. So it's a very different look at the offense when they come to the reparative board.

WOLF: What is the commitment you're asking from the community members who participate in this? How often do they show up for a panel? How much time does it take? And how long do they usually stick around in terms of their longevity and participation on a panel?

VASTINE: So this is Karen. We actually are the busiest justice center and because of our caseload, we typically have six to eight panels of three to five community members meeting every week. And generally, at a minimum, that's a 2 1/2 hour commitment every week.

WOLF: Wow, so that's in Burlington, which is the largest city in Vermont.

VASTINE: Right, that's in Burlington and I think Mark and Yvonne have a much different expectation of your volunteers.

BYRD: Our volunteers for repair board are asked to come to a two hour meeting twice a month. We schedule new cases for an hour and review cases for half an hour. So we could have two new cases or a new case and two reviews.

And sometimes if we're backlogged we'll ask people to do a little more in a meeting, but that's what's typical. And in terms of longevity, we have one person who's been a volunteer on a reparative board since 1997, '98, and most people stay a long time.

WOLF: I'm speaking with Yvonne Byrd, and Karen Vastine, and Mark Wennberg, who are all involved in community justice initiatives in Vermont.

Let me ask you. It sounds like a big commitment and I wonder, where does the enthusiasm and the interest come from, that people are willing to make this commitment to what sounds like a potentially difficult and challenging—and in the case of the Burlington boards, somewhat time-consuming—commitment? Does anyone want to take on that question?

VASTINE: I'd be happy to.

WOLF: Karen.

VASTINE: Since we also ask more of our volunteers.

So I think that what's interesting about Vermont—I don't think it's just unique to Vermont—but because of the scale of Vermont, you know, there's about 625,000 people in our state, and so the scale of Vermont really lends itself nicely to participatory democracy, and I believe that that is very alive and well in Vermont.

We still have town meeting day, which is where a lot of decisions are made in local municipalities, and in Burlington, for instance, was have something called neighborhood planning assemblies, and those are specific groups that inform our city government, since we're a little bit too big to have town meeting day.

And so I think because in part of this history steeped in citizen engagement, that we see a lot of interest in this opportunity to have a direct impact on the criminal justice system and then also what's happening within city government.

And then on top of that, many years ago we had a commissioner of corrections, John Gorczyk, who we really credit with bringing restorative justice practices to Vermont. He really saw this as a way to keep offenders in the community and also to keep the community safe, and as a way of really empowering our community.

WOLF: And so is Vermont just this ideal of community involvement everywhere you go?

WENNBERG: The birth of the justice centers might have been the brainchild of a few key figures, but it's become much larger than that. I think that that had helped to institutionalize what we do.

VASTINE: And in terms of are we all singing kumbayah and holding hands in Vermont? The answer is no.

I mean in Burlington, and I know in many other communities, we are challenged to figure out how to diversify our participation in government. I know that in Burlington, we have spent a lot of time focusing on how to engage non-white, non-educated individuals, you know, in government. And that's also true for our justice centers, is that we would also like to continue to diversify our applicant pool.

BYRD: John Gorczyk, who Karen referred to, he was one of the longer-reigning commissioners of corrections, and he used his authority to start reparative boards, and it was based on his belief that he has that government's role is to provide assistance, resources, technical assistance and such to communities, and that community's role is to support families, and that the family’s role is to support individuals and nurture and grow individuals.

And that what we have had as a system is one in which government bypasses community and families and is doing the social service, human resources is like government taking care of individuals.

WOLF: That's fascinating. It really speaks to the power of an individual with a vision finding the right fertile ground to implement his vision.

I thought I would just ask you one more question. If any of you guys have any tips for people who want to explore some of the models outside of Vermont, what advice might you give someone who doesn't necessarily have a visionary leader or a culture maybe of specific community involvement?

VASTINE: This is Karen. I think that one of the biggest lessons that I've learned from this is really asking your community what it wants. And so whether that's taking advantage of existing infrastructures through community groups and churches and that sort of thing, or going out there and seeing what are your community members most concerned about?

WOLF: Does anyone have anything to add to that?

BYRD: Not a lot of people know what the term restorative justice means. There's a great book that Howard Zehr wrote, “The New Book of Restorative Justice,” which we pass out to all of our volunteers and potential volunteers. And I think when you read that you come away with the sense that “Wow, this just makes sense. This is what we ought to do,” and it's kind of inspiring.

So maybe disseminating that information in the community is a helpful prelude to the conversation, and I do think having a champion at a high level is really important.

WOLF: That's Howard Zehr. How do you spell his name?

BYRD: Z-E-H-R.

WOLF: Great. Anyone want to add anything more?

WENNBERG: Only that I think even in communities where there are community justice options, there are a lot of organizations that are doing work that there is potential alignment to. And so it wouldn't be so far afield for them to adopt some of these practices with some institutional support, to begin doing this kind of work.

WOLF: I thank all three of you for taking the time to speak with me today. I really appreciate it.

I've been speaking with Yvonne Byrd, director of the Montpelier Community Justice Center, Karen Vastine, the community justice coordinator in Burlington, and Mark Wennberg, director of the St. Albans Community Justice Center.

I'm Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. For more information about the Center for Court Innovation you can visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org. Thank you for listening.

September 2011

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