Despite fewer case referrals due to a backed-up court system, the pandemic has been a busy time for the Orange County Restorative Justice Center.
The organization, born out of a 2019 merger of the Chelsea based Orange County Court Diversion and the Randolph based Community Justice Center, has moved to a new building, hired a handful more staff members, and continues to work with more than 30 volunteers to support people charged with or convicted for breaking the law.
Statewide support is growing for restorative justice programming, according to staff members Kym Anderson and Jessie Schmidt.
The organization’s programs include court diversion programs—which help people make amends without a conviction, and re-entry programs to help those convicted of crimes successfully get back to life without re-offending.
Its goal is to use “restorative programs to address legal issues, wrongdoing, conflict and the needs of harmed parties,” as well as to help people access services that “improve health, wellbeing, and positive behavior,” according to its website.
Thanks to new staff members, there’s now expanded driver’s-license reinstatement support and youth programming, too.
“What we do here,” at the restorative justice center, said Schmidt, “is look at … how, as a community, we can address harm.” That differs from the courts, which focuses primarily on laws that were broken, she added.
Starts with Housing
A new grant from the department of corrections is allowing Anderson to focus on transitional housing.
Anderson explained that after evaluating the cost of jailing people—either in Vermont or in out-of-state prisons—the legislature passed a law last year that aims to reduce the prison population. Act 148 of 2020 puts funding toward helping people convicted of crimes to access treatment, according to Anderson.
It allows certain incarcerated people or those on parole, without major disciplinary infractions, to have their minimum sentences cut in half, Schmidt said, adding that the law is retroactive—meaning that those incarcerated before the law was passed may be eligible for release earlier than planned.
When it comes to supporting people reentering the community, a key focus for Anderson is finding a place for them to live.
Anderson explained that a grant from the Department of Corrections pays to lease housing for people getting out of prison, but availability is still an issue. The center has funding for three apartments— and so far has only been able to find one, because the rental market has been so tight.
And, staff member Kassie Tibbott added, many landlords are reluctant to rent to people with criminal convictions.
“It’s not a financial risk,” for landlords to rent to recently incarcerated folks, according to Anderson, because the grant funding can cover a year’s worth of rent regardless of whether anyone lives there, or is able to contribute to rent themselves. But, even so, landlords can be reluctant to take a chance on housing people who have just left prison, she said.
Anderson said that because many of the people in the restorative justice program have some sort of sex-crime conviction, that further limits the options for housing, as the law limits where someone with a sex offense can live.
Caring for Victims
Schmidt, the victim outreach coordinator and executive director of the center, said it’s been difficult for the victims of some crimes to learn that the perpetrator may be released from prison or parole sooner than anticipated.
But, she added, the restorative processes are aimed at supporting both the convicts re-entering society and also the people harmed by the crime.
For example, she said, the center houses a fund that could help victims with expenses such as installing a security system.
Schmidt also works closely with those harmed to determine what they need to feel the harm caused to them was addressed.
She works with a victim to “help them think through what their expectations are [with a restorative process] and to be prepared for the fact that their expectations might not be met.”
Schmidt added that a critical aspect of the restorative justice team’s work is to make sure that everyone involved feels emotionally safe, in addition to physically safe.
It’s always voluntary for victims to be involved in the restorative process, said Schmidt. If they don’t want to be there, they can opt to have a family member or someone else close to them be involved instead, she said.
Ultimately, Tibbott added, the goal is that people who perpetrated harm against someone else, take responsibility for that.
“We have control over our reactions, if that might be the only thing,” she said. “So we start there,” with the perpetrator, “saying what were your actions, and what could you have done differently?”
“When it comes to accountability and making amends and repairing harm … the court system isn’t the best at [that], so that’s what we try to bring to the table here,” said Schmidt.
But even with new programs and staff, overall, the center’s case count has dropped off. According to Schmidt, that’s because the court system has been backed up due to the pandemic, which paused or delayed most court proceedings statewide for more than a year.
Those delays mean that sometimes the people entering the program have pending convictions from years ago. Because much of the programming revolves around repairing harm between the perpetrator and those affected, said Tibbott, the restorative justice center staff and volunteers now have to walk the line between making sure those involved take responsibility for their actions without making things worse by re-opening old wounds for victims.
Another cause of dropping referrals to restorative justice, she added, is that law enforcement agencies, which have been chronically understaffed, have had to prioritize what they respond to—and, particularly, said Schmidt, seem to be pulling fewer people over.
Kiara Senecal, the youth services case manager, said with fewer traffic stops—often a simple traffic stop of a teenager might lead to other charges—fewer youth are being referred to the restorative justice center.
With the drop in youth referrals, Schmidt said she fears that “there’s a bunch of kids just falling through the cracks.”
Schmidt and Anderson commented that as the state prioritizes restorative practices more and more, the way people in the community perceive that perpetrators of harm, or crime, are held responsible may need to shift, too.
“’Diversion’s a slap on the wrist,’ we get that feedback,” said Schmidt. “What I’d like people to think about is really … what happens when people go through the court process and what accountability looks like there.
“When people say they want more of a consequence, what are they really looking for— and does our justice system and our judicial system really provide that?”
Roughly 30% of Vermonters have some sort of criminal conviction. That means, she said, “we’re not talking… other people or this certain population— these are our community members.”
And whether or not they get a criminal conviction, they will typically still end up back in the community, she said.
Tibbott added that sometimes people believe others are not being held accountable for their actions if they see people who they believe have committed some sort of crime around town.
And, she said, if people want to be involved in the process, they can always volunteer with the restorative justice center, or even just ask questions about how the programs work.
Anderson added, “Even putting people in prison will bring very little positive change to the community,” posited Anderson. That’s why, she said, “I want the community always thinking about what does justice mean to them.”
“Change is inevitable but it’s still scary, especially if you don’t feel like you’re part of the decision-making process,” said Tibbott, referring to shifts in the systems of accountability towards more restorative programs. “But we’re always looking for more community involvement and volunteers … so come knock on the door.”