ELODIE REED, St. Albans Messenger
When you’re a felon, you’re punished for the rest of your life.
Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a two-part report.
ST. ALBANS — He was released from incarceration last June. Having spent a total of 17 years and two sentences at Northwest State Correctional Facility for serious criminal charges, Jay was ready to try something new.
In a recent interview, Jay, whose last name is being withheld, said, “There just comes a point in life when you realize, ‘this isn’t working for me.”
That willingness to change is central to St. Albans Community Justice Center’s most involved restorative justice program, Offender Reentry.
The center’s two options, One Stop Reentry Resource Center and Circle of Support and Accountability, help formerly incarcerated people re-integrate into the community. Jay is enrolled in the latter.
One Stop Reentry helps between 40 and 50 offenders per year. According to Marc Wennberg, director of St. Albans Community Justice Center, the program gives offenders access to case managers, and it also provides transitional housing, community connections, and informational workshops as clients find steady jobs, apartments, and other support resources.
“If you can build those things into someone’s reentry,” Wennberg said, “they have a much better chance of success.”
The Circle of Support and Accountability (CoSA) program is like a more intense version of One Stop Reentry. Five high level offenders go through the program each year, and each is given three to four volunteers to meet with once a week, to rely on for various needs, and to talk to.
Through CoSA, Jay received transitional housing, was given an opportunity to do community service at Tim’s House, a homeless shelter, and he also could work closely with local community members with his best interests at heart.
“It’s changed my life a lot,” Jay said. “It’s made it a lot easier to transition out. It’s really nice to know that there are people out there who will give you support.”
Jay spoke about the various services CoSA provides him, and how they’ve changed his approach. “I think I did what I did because I wasn’t very happy with my life,” he said. “I really didn’t care much about everything. It was all about me,” Jay added.
“Now, being out doing the community service, I hear how people talk about me, and it’s so nice to hear positive things,” Jay said. “They give you the opportunity to change.”
Jay said that in addition to feeling sense of worth from doing community service, he feels like he can rely on his CoSA members, who he refers to as friends, for decision-making help. “I value their opinions a great deal,” he said. “I don’t have to second guess myself anymore – I have people that have my best interests in mind. They’re not going to make a decision that they know is bad for me.”
Though Jay doesn’t deny his past as an offender and the people he’s hurt, he’s looking to move onward in life.
“I’m a born-again Christian, and part of my faith is that God has forgiven me for what I’ve done, and as long as I continue to do good things, not only for myself but for others, good things are going to continue happening for me.” Jay added, “I try to be a very productive member of society.”
The St. Albans Community Justice Center also has the Parallel Justice Program, which is aimed to help victims. It is accomplished largely through collaboration with the St. Albans Police Department and Vermont State Police, both of which give referrals to the center for victims typically dealing with things like slashed tires or stolen property in the aftermath of a crime.
“We try to reach out to them as quickly as possible (usually in three to seven days). We try to meet their needs in the wake of a crime,” said Wennberg.
The St. Albans Community Justice Center also takes the time to work with at-risk community members. For instance, the center’s Truancy Program works with the Franklin and Grand Isle school districts when a referral comes in and states that a child is not meeting attendance expectations. The program, geared towards grades 1-6, then facilitates family group conferences.
“[The conference] involves the whole family to devise a program to get the child back in school,” said Wennberg.
The center also provides a Community Mediation program, which helps solve any community disputes between neighbors, landlords and tenants, and others in conflict.
Getting to the goal
Criminal Justice, in its purest form, has the goal of improving the safety of and bettering communities. In Vermont and in St. Albans, restorative justice appears to be a step in that direction, as it not only has offenders address their mistakes and make reparations toward victims, but it also improves general community safety. “It has a demonstrable effect on recidivism rates,” Wennberg said.
Part of the cause of recidivism is a lack of resources for recently released offenders. While places like the St. Albans Community Justice Center are trying to combat that lack, the stigma attached to offenders in communities is a roadblock in and of itself.
Casey Kivela, a Bakersfield resident who also happens to be one of Jay’s CoSA volunteers, knows about these roadblocks from not only observation, but from experience. Kivela was incarcerated and released 32 years ago in Chittenden County, and he said in a recent interview that he is still suffering the consequences.
“I’ve been out of trouble since the early 80s,” Kivela said. “When you’re a felon, you’re punished for the rest of your life. There are so many walls that go up because of a mistake you made when you were younger.”
Kivela added that he continues to want to serve his community for his past actions, but he also feels that being continually labeled a “criminal” can discourage past offenders from trying to move forward.
“If you’re told something enough, you’re going to believe it,” he said. “I think the community has a tendency to use [a criminal] label to define that person, and I think it’s detrimental.”
For now, Kivela sees CoSA as the best available tool for the incarcerated to find ways to become more integrated into the community. “I think CoSA is a great stepping stone for getting out,” he said. Kivela said he thought it could do a lot of good for offenders who sincerely wanted to change.
For Jay, he seems to be on the right path. In addition to his community service work, Jay just accepted a job offer from the St. Albans Community Justice Center to be a live-in mentor for recently released inmates, something he will begin in April.
“It’s nice because people who know me see me for who I am right now. They’re not judging me on my past and on the things I did,” Jay said. “They were expecting a monster, and they never got one.”
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Justice Center offers redemption formula
ST. ALBANS — Moving forward assumes your past is resolved and left behind. But when you’re an offender or a victim of a crime, previous actions often linger and make those next steps hard to take.
Resolution, then, becomes important in criminal justice. By acknowledging the harmful action, how that action hurt the victim, and what ways there are to make amends for the injury, both parties find a way to move on.
This process, also known as restorative justice, is something Vermont has tried out with great success since the 1990s. As part of the state’s efforts to curb prison population growth and in response to residents’ call for more involvement in the system, Vermont Department of Corrections began their reparative probation program in 1995.
A few volunteers choosing to work with low-level offenders in several towns soon grew into state-funded community justice centers opening all over the state, with programs serving juveniles up to high-level offenders. Legislators signed restorative justice into state policy in May 2000, and the system’s infrastructure has been growing ever since.
The St. Albans Community Justice Center opened in 2004, and is one of the 17 centers currently in Vermont. In addition to connecting former offenders to transitional living, community service organizations, and supportive, good-intentioned volunteers, the St. Albans Community Justice Center does something more: it helps those involved in a crime move forward, and it allows offenders to define themselves outside of their past.
Before any offenders can take part in the St. Albans Community Justice Center, they must do one thing: admit they committed the offense.
Once there is an acknowledgement of a problematic action, big or small, the Community Justice Center takes measures to go about correcting it through one of its five programs: Reparative Boards, Offender Reentry, the Truancy Program, Community Mediation, and the Parallel Justice Program.
Reparative boards are intended to work with low-level offenders, usually people who’ve been charged with a property crime, DUI, shoplifting, or simple assault, who are deferred to the St. Albans Community Justice Center instead of going to jail. The center has six reparative boards that meet once a month, each of which is made up of three to four volunteers and takes one to two new cases each month.
Marc Wennberg, director of St. Albans Community Justice Center, said in a recent interview that a reparative board helps each offender understand the harm he or she caused and finds a way to make up for his or her mistake. “They take [the offender] through a restoration process,” Wennberg said.
Sometimes, a victim will be present for the first reparative board meeting, or the victim will have written a letter to be shared at the meeting. “The offender can hear it directly from the offended party,” Wennberg said. “Often, they’re the most powerful meetings. It breaks through some defenses – it goes right to the heart of the matter.”
After the initial meeting, the offender has three months to carry out an agreed-upon reparative project. “It all leads up to a contract,” Wennberg said. “It’s a collaborative contract.”
At the end the program, the client must show the board evidence of their work.
Josh Cox, a Reparative Board volunteer from the St. Albans Town, said in a recent phone interview that the posters, poems, community service, and other projects are special and useful to each client that completes them. “Those moments are always pretty cool,” he said of the review meetings. “The nice thing I like about [the program] is it’s not coercive.”