ST. ALBANS — Ask yourself: if you were the victim of a crime, what would you want to happen to the criminal?
According to John Perry, who retired in 2009 from his 27-year-long position as director of planning for the state’s Department of Corrections, research shows that people don’t want offenders to be punished.
Rather, they want what’s broken to be fixed, and they want an apology.
“[People] want someone to own up to it, and [people] want someone to fix the mess,” Perry said in a recent interview.
Discovering that most victims wanted reparations, not jail time, from offenders was what caused Vermont Department of Corrections, led in large part by Perry, to remodel its criminal justice program in the 1990s. The state began its movement towards a model of restorative justice, changing job descriptions, laws, and criminal justice infrastructure along the way.
What followed was a revolutionary new system that continues to improve and be an international leader today. And the Saint Albans Community Justice Center is no small part of it.
Before 1990, Vermont was facing the same issue as other states: too many people were in jail. “Back then, it was lock ’em up and throw away the key,” Perry said.
But as the state Department of Corrections looked more closely at its system, it saw it didn’t work, and state residents weren’t happy with the results. “We got a lower performance rating than [U.S.] Congress has now,” Perry said. “They said, ‘What you’re doing is stupid.’”
With incentive from Gov. Richard Snelling to combat prison population as he started his term in 1991, the Department of Corrections began looking for new ideas, started with the popular Atlantic piece “Broken Windows,” by George Kelling. The article, which was published in 1982, emphasized the issue with low-level crime, and the multiplier-effect that takes place if its not handled. “[The article] really started a whole lot of people thinking about less serious crime as the real problem,” Perry said.
But incarceration wasn’t the answer. “What we need in prison is people who hurt other people more than once and can’t learn,” Perry said. “[Vermonters] didn’t want people who weren’t dangerous to be put in jail.”
Instead, state residents wanted to find some way for low-level offenders to make amends. In addition, state residents wanted to be involved in the process.
Perry said the state began working on a new system that took to heart article 64 in Vermont’s 1787 Constitution: “those who shall be convicted of crimes not capital, whereby the criminal shall be employed for the benefit of the public, or for the reparation of injuries done to private persons.”
“We (were) working on this thing called reparative probation,” Perry said. “It means repairing the damage.”
A new system
By 1995, the Department of Corrections had set up three reparative boards in Vermont, stationed in Newport, St. Johnsbury and Brattleboro. The boards, made up of local volunteers, worked with low-level offenders to identify the harm they created through their offense, to find ways to fix the damage and heal their victims, and to move on.
“We were doing something very basic,” Perry said.
Probation officer job descriptions changed, field supervisor units were created, and after just a year, 30 reparative boards were set up around the state, run by 400 or so volunteers. “It was a real community-based program,” Perry said. “It really started to take off.”
According to Perry, international visitors made their way to Vermont to see the system in action. In 1998, Vermont was given the Innovations in American Governments award by the Harvard Kennedy School, a $1 million prize that went towards advertising the program.
“That just made it explode even faster,” Perry said.
In May 2000, the Vermont Legislature enacted 28 VSA 2a, a statute that made the principles of reparative probation a statewide policy under the name “Reformative Justice.”
“I thought the most interesting thing was the bipartisan nature of interest,” said Perry.
The Department of Corrections eventually went on to see Community Justice Centers set up in every county, where volunteers could not only run reparative boards, but they could also put on legal clinics, presentations, school programs, and other useful activities.
In 2005, Vermont Department of Corrections adopted CoSA, or Circle of Support and Accountability, a yearlong program that originated in Canada where volunteers work closely with high-level offenders to help them re-integrate back into society.
“We read the description and we said, ‘wow,’” Perry said.
Early on, reparative probation was making a notable difference in the state’s criminal justice outcomes. A 2012 study published by Gale Burford of the University of Vermont, John Humphrey of St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, and Meredith Huey Dye of Middle Tennessee State University looks at the Vermont reparative probation program between 1998 and 2000 to see how effective it was on criminal recidivism, or the likelihood of former offenders re-offending. When comparing 5-year reconviction rates of 9,078 offenders, the study shows that the 2,396 offenders who went through reparative probation presented a significantly lower risk of reconviction than those who didn’t.
Sheer numbers don’t say everything, though. According to UVM professor Kathy Fox, who has been studying restorative justice since 2006, the state’s criminal justice infrastructure is key.
Fox was a Fulbright Scholar in 2013, when she went to New Zealand to study restorative justice there. What she found was that while New Zealand had an extensive restorative justice program for youth, the same was not applied to adult offenders, and the government corrections program did not employ restorative justice principles. “There is no external infrastructure (in New Zealand) to deliver restorative justice,” Fox wrote in a recent e-mail. “Vermont has the structure in place, the community capacity, a lot of expertise in restorative principles.”
Fox added that she thought even more could be done at the community level in Vermont.
In your community, too
For the moment, it seems the state is on the right path, with this year being the first that every county in the state has a community justice center, according to state Rep. Suzi Wizowaty (D-Burlington). “We have a strong and growing commitment to restorative justice,” she said in a recent phone interview. “There are now community justice centers in every county.”
These include Franklin County and the St. Albans Community Justice Center, which opened in 2004 and is located on Catherine Street. Marc Wennberg has been the director of the center since it reopened after a year-long hiatus between 2008 and 2009, and he recently spoke with the Messenger about the center’s five programs: reparative boards, the truancy program, offender reentry, community mediation, and the parallel justice program.
“They pretty much span the criminal justice system,” Wennberg said.
All five programs, whether they are for youths for high-level offenders, rely on the community for success. “There is a general collaborative inclination,” Wennberg said. In addition to working with other organizations such as Northwestern Counseling & Support Services, St. Albans Probation and Parole and local employment resource centers, Wennberg said that local volunteers are what keep the Community Justice Center going.
“We would not be able to do what we do without our volunteers,” he said.
The importance of community connections is at the crux of what the center is trying to do. “Crime hurts relationships,” Wennberg said. “There is a direct connection between [criminal actions] and repairing the heart.”
Often, offenders working with the Community Justice Center are required to volunteer in the community, and they’re always connected with volunteers as a way to become accountable those around them. “If we can surround people with positive accountability, it creates a culture of success,” Wennberg said.
In general, Wennberg said that the Community Justice Center helps those who have been on the fringes of society for much of their lives find a way back into the community, to the center.
“You build connections here with people that you normally wouldn’t,” he said. “They’re very positive connections.”