Instead of jail, criminals face victims

First statewide program for restorative-justice is seeing results in

Eric Gilman's fidgeting hands betray his nervousness. But his smile shows he's proud of what he's accomplished.

Almost a year ago, still underage, he was arrested for driving drunk. He had three friends in his car. At the time, he'd dropped out of school, was partially homeless living between his car and a friend's apartment, and he was drinking a lot.

Today he's sober, back in school, working full time, and no longer hanging out with "the wrong crowd." He plans to go to college.

He's sitting before a board of community members in Barre, Vt. Called the Reparative Board, the volunteer group is charged with ensuring that low-risk, nonviolent offenders are made aware of the impact of their behavior on the people around them and that they make amends to them.

The board is part of a reform movement called restorative justice. An outgrowth of the victims-rights movement, it aims to shift the focus away from punishing offenders to helping victims and repairing the damage done to the community.

While more than a dozen states are experimenting with the concept, Vermont is the first to implement reparative boards on a statewide basis and the first to commit to shifting its entire criminal-justice system to the new restorative philosophy. The rest of the nation is watching carefully.

"Vermont is dealing with the institutionalization of this community-justice movement. That's what makes it so important," says David Karp, a sociologist at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Like every other state, Vermont's prison population continues to grow even as the crime rate declines.

Nationally, Americans now spend more than $34 billion a year on corrections. In some states, like California and Connecticut, that's now more than is spent on higher education.

Failing system

In 1991, Vermont corrections officials looked at the overall result and decided they were failing in their most important mission: to make communities feel safer and to help the victims of crime.

"Right now, we offer victims nothing other than increased levels of retribution," says John Gorczyk, Vermont commissioner of corrections. "But there's never enough punishment. What we need to do is change the [criminal-justice] culture."

Commissioner Gorczyk and his colleagues decided they needed to get average citizens involved in their rethinking of the justice system.

So they hired a market-research firm to find out what Vermonters thought of the job they were currently doing. The findings gave them a shock.

"They told us in no uncertain terms that we were doing a lousy job, that they hated us," says John Perry, the correction department's director of planning. "We were the enemy because we have all of the bad people, and we let them out without doing anything about the crime."

Armed with that failing report card, the Department of Corrections then asked Vermont residents what it should be doing to improve its poor performance. The response was just as overwhelming.

The first thing people wanted were safe communities. In the case of violent offenders, that meant locking them up. But for everyone else who did wrong, from thieves to drunken drivers, Vermonters said they wanted accountability.

And they didn't mean more prison cells. They wanted low-level offenders to be able to accept responsibility for what they did and to make amends to their community. They wanted the damage repaired and assurances that it would not happen again.

"They also made it clear they wanted people to get treatment. That also took us by surprise," Mr. Perry says.

So Vermont joined a handful of other states on the cutting edge of criminal-justice reforms and began a long-term rethinking of its role.

New approach

Over the next five to 10 years, Vermont plans to judge the success of its prisons and probation systems on how well they serve their communities and the victims of crime.

The goal is to have all offenders pay back their victims, even while they're locked up. Instead of just giving prisoners job skills, they want to train them to be more "pro-social."

"When offenders are released, they'll have a responsibility plan, instead of landing on your doorstep with a suit and 50 bucks," says Perry.

The development of the reparative boards was the first step in this process. Three years ago, there was one board. Today there are 44 in 29 communities around the state, with more than 300 citizens involved.

Furthermore, over 80 percent of the more than 4,000 offenders who have gone through the state's reparative process have completed it successfully. Preliminary studies show they are less likely to re-offend than are those who go through regular probation.

But members of the reparative board in Barre who were hearing Mr. Gilman's case say the statistics don't tell the whole story. Contact between offenders, board members, and victims, they say, is vital and transforming.

"The different thing here is the victim and the community get some real closure," says board member Paul Irons. "In the process, the offender is also more likely to be able to feel restored, like he can become a part of the community again."

Gilman is a testament to how well the program is working.

"I could have really hurt somebody if they stopped fast and I wasn't aware of it," he told the board. "It just clicked in my head: I gotta shape up."

In Gilman's case, there were no immediate victims. So he has been ordered to spend three evenings before a victim-impact panel and listen to people who have been injured or have lost loved ones because of drunken drivers.

Victim participation

The Barre board members agree with critics that the biggest problem with the state's reparative system so far has been a lack of participation by victims - the very people who are supposed to be the centerpiece of this new philosophy.

Many are still uncertain what the purpose of the board is and are hesitant to come.

"The practice is not keeping up with the rhetoric. Victims are still not getting the kind of notification and support they need to join in the process," says Lori Hayes, executive director of the Center for Crime Victims in Burlington, Vt.

The state is aware of the lack of victim participation and has hired a full-time victims-rights advocate.

But Barre board members have decided to take things into their own hands and contact the victims themselves to explain why it's important for them to come to the meetings.

"Every time a victim has participated it's been a success - every time," says board member Dick Jenny.

"That's the key to me," he says, "when the victim is part of the process, then it really changes it for the better."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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