MONTPELIER — In addition to protecting the general population, incarceration is meant to serve as a punishment to criminals in order to discourage the commitment of further crimes. However, recidivism is high for those who enter the prison system. 67.8 percent of the 404,638 state prisoners released in 2005 in 30 states were arrested again within 3 years of release, and 76.6 percent were arrested within 5 years of release, according to a special report from the U.S. Department of Justice that looked at recidivism from 2005 to 2010.
To make matters worse, that state of Vermont has more inmates than prison beds available. “Today, Vermont has a total incarcerated population of 1744. Of that, 1,585 are men. We only have 1,300 male beds. As a result, we have about 230 inmates out of state,” said Lisa Menard, the commissioner for the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC). For a state that has more prisoners than beds available, looking for ways to decrease the recidivism rate is paramount. One such alternative that the state has adopted is a method of restorative justice.
Restorative justice is a broad term that describes a collective rehabilitation process involving the offender, the victim of the crime, and the community.
“Restorative justice means that a person who has committed an offense takes responsibility for that offense and tries to make amends to the victim and the community for their behavior,” Menard explained.
“One of the nice things is that it really takes the victim into account,” added “It asks: what are their needs? In the criminal justice system, crime is viewed as a violation of the law and the state, whereas restorative justice looks at it as a violation of people or relationships.”
Restorative Justice Centers (RJCs) are the cornerstones of restorative justice. The Vermont DOC allocates 3 million general fund dollars to RJCs annually. Although each center is run differently, they offer the same programming. Vermont is the only state to have an RJC in every county.
From transportation and housing to alcohol and drug services, Restorative Justice Centers serve a variety of functions and provide an assortment of services. RJCs are geared to serve two demographics: those who are at a high-risk of entering the criminal justice system, and those who have served time and are looking to be reintegrated back into society. RJCs work with anybody in the criminal justice system at any time as long as they take responsibility for the crime they committed. One notable restorative justice program is the Circle Of Support and Accountability (COSA).
The COSA program is a reentry program for high-risk offenders, available following their served prison time. In order to run this program, RJCs find three volunteers from the surrounding community who go through a training and make an agreement to meet with an offender twice a week every week for a year, working to repair the harm the offender has done.
The offender agrees to be honest about what their needs are in order best to work with volunteers. Conversely, volunteers agree to support and follow any rules that the DOC has set or that the offender has set for themselves.
“Bottom line of the COSA program is no secrets and no more victims,” said Kym Anderson, the director of the Randolph Community Justice Center. “If a person coming out of jail has a social support network, they are significantly less likely to reoffend.”
Being placed on Reparative Probation — a program similar to COSA — versus Standard Probation decreases the odds of a new conviction during probation by 23 percent. Furthermore, the odds of a new conviction after probation are reduced by 12 percent for those on Reparative Probation rather than Standard Probation, according to a study titled, “Reparative versus Standard Probation: Community Justice Outcomes.”
The study outlines another program that acts to prevent individuals from ever entering the criminal justice system. People who commit low-level crimes can be referred by police, school, state’s attorneys or judges to participate in a community reparative panel. Offenders agree to meet with the volunteers on their community reparative panel to come up with a plan to repair the harm their crime caused. If the offender chooses to go through the restorative program and is able to complete it, they will avoid a criminal conviction on their record.
While choosing to participate in the restorative justice program may seem like the easy way out, participating in the community reparative panel is a commitment some cannot handle.
“Many people who are not interested in repairing harm find going through the panel more onerous than going through court,” Anderson said. “They drop out of the panel and decide to go to court because they see going to court as easier than the panel.”
While participating in restorative justice programs has been proven to reduce the likelihood of perpetrators committing another crime, Laura Zeliger, the Community & Restorative Justice Director in Vermont, does not think that it is always a better alternative.
“I would say it’s not better than the traditional legal system,” Zeliger said. “I would say that it’s an option for some individuals. Some would argue it’s better on a case by case basis. You would have to ask those people if they feel better by the end of the process.”
Restorative justice has been found to be unsuccessful in two specific situations. Restorative justice does not work when the offender refuses to take responsibility for the crime they committed, and it has not worked for crimes involving domestic or sexual violence.
While restorative justice has been in Vermont for 20 years, it is in the process of being revamped. “We have seen a shift towards evidence-based assessments and evidence-based programming — meaning using what we know works because it’s been shown to work by scientific method,” Menard said. “That way we know we’re spending very precious general fund dollars for what is the most effective.”
Although there are a lot of flaws to our inherently racist criminal justice system, restorative justice is a good first step.
“Restorative justice boils down to offender accountability and the opportunity to repair harm to the victim or the community for harm that’s been created through law breaking or violations,” Zeliger said. “Restorative justice gives offenders a chance to repair the harm and allows victims a voice in the process.”
Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series.