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Vermont’s juvenile justice system saves a woman’s life

Susan Notes:

Vermont's restorative justice plan tries "to relate directly to the crime, or at least to who the kid is. Do they like animals? Children? We want them to get into what they like. We want them to see how valuable they really are."

This sounds astonishing, considering that nationally, "Since 1992, every state but Nebraska has made it easier to try juveniles as adults, and most states have legalized harsher sentences. Many states limit judges' discretion, sending all teens who commit serious offenses to adult courts, or allowing prosecutors to opt for adult prosecution." ( USA Today, 9/20/06).

I first came into close contact with restorative justice through the late and deeply missed Steve Orel, who worked hard and patiently to practice it in the WOO community in Birmingham, Alabama.

I thought of Steve when an irate mom wrote me a letter about girls bullying her daughter and the school not doing anything. I found a restorative justice program in her Texas community and suggested she contact them as well as the parents of the other children--and see if they might get together. The very concept astounded her and gave her hope. Of particular interest to me is how the tone of this mom's e-mails changed--from angry and belligerent to hopeful, willing to reach out to the party she regarded as an enemy.

Julia Steiny

This is the first of four columns in a series about the nationâs oldest and most mature restorative juvenile justice system.

Today, at 38 years old, Robyn Masi has her life together. Sheâs the proud assistant vice president and branch manager of Union Bank in Lamoille County, Vt. Sheâs served as a school board member on behalf of her two kids. And more recently she joined a local restoration panel. These panels are nationally and internationally recognized models of a juvenile justice strategy that restores offenders to good graces in their communities by hearing their cases and working out restitution plans.

But at 16, Masi was one of those offending kids. She says, âI got into a lot of trouble. And I got caught. I was horrified to have to tell my parents and grandparents. My father was pretty strict, so telling him was very hard. But heâs the one who took me to see an attorney.â

She said up front that if I needed to know what she did, we could end the interview right there. Whatever it was, the shame still stings. But she wants to tell her story, minus the offense, because she believes Vermontâs judicial response to her crime saved her life. âI would not be where I am today if Iâd gone through the regular court system. I donât even know if you can get a job in a bank if you have a record.â

Thirty years ago, Vermontâs enlightened bureaucrats implemented a juvenile âdiversionâ program, which is not unlike the restorative panels, but reached by a different path through the judicial system. The prosecutor had the right to remand Masi to the adult court system even as a 16-year-old. But, she recalls, âthe stateâs attorney agreed to turn me over to the program. The lawyer said, here are your alternatives. I suggest you take this route.â

For a case to be heard in either diversion or the restorative panels, the offender must admit her crime, tell her story to a group of trained community volunteers and work out a contract that makes restitution to the victim(s). Itâs also designed to reengage the kid with the community sheâs offended with her bad behavior. Some offenders come to the panels before being formally charged. If they complete the contract, the case is never filed. If the child has already been adjudicated by the court, a completed contract will seal her record.

Just to pay a fine, or even do some jail time, does not really address the crime. Research argues that kids learn little from conventional punishments. Imagine how much more emotionally painful it would be to have to describe your stupid, destructive deed to citizen-volunteers, in front of your parents. Imagine squirming through giving answers to the volunteersâ questions. And the panels are most powerful when the victims themselves come and describe how the offense affected them.

Masi remembers, âI was scared to death on the day of my meeting with the panel. I knew what Iâd done was not good, and I was going to have to tell my story. I had to explain who it affected and why I did it. Of course, I didnât know why I did it! I was crying so hard I couldnât talk. So they talked to me. They said that they were going to try to make this good, and that theyâd see if they could offer me a contract. They made me feel better so I could talk without crying so much.â

Besides her parents, six people were in the room. "And I knew one of them! I just prayed she wouldnât tell. They introduced themselves. Then it took me a while to get through my story. They asked questions. When we were done, they asked me to leave the room while they decided whether they would accept me into the program. I was out in the hallway of the courthouse for what felt like about a year. It was probably 20 minutes."

They did take her. "They gave me some community service, which I got done right off," not that she even remembers what it was. "Another part of the contract took me a year to complete, but I wonât go into it." Presumably it was restitution directly related to the victim(s), repairing the harm sheâd caused. Whatever it was, she found it difficult and unforgettable.

Ninety percent of the kids in Vermont's juvenile justice programs complete their plans. Unlike most American juvenile justice systems, Vermontâs recidivism is very low.

As a panelist herself now, Masi has firsthand knowledge of how the diversion boards and restorative panels have updated their practices. Kids are intimidated enough by these panels, so they no longer hold meetings in courthouses. And if Masi knows a kid on her list of cases, she has the organizers give the offender a heads-up, again just to reduce the freak-out factor. All decisions and deliberations take place in front of the offender and her family. No more waiting in the hall to hear your fate.

But what changed most, since the birth of the diversion boards, is the nature of the restitution. Masi says, "We try to get it to relate directly to the crime, or at least to who the kid is. Do they like animals? Children? We want them to get into what they like. We want them to see how valuable they really are. Panels reengage the kids back in their community, to teach them the social skills that will make them successful." Kids are held accountable, but nothing produces safe neighborhoods like citizens with strong bonds to their community.

Recently, Masiâs panel heard an adult case â Vermontâs adult system has reparations boards also grounded in restorative principles. In that case, the adult offender belligerently demanded to know why panel members were there, as if they got some nasty pleasure out of it. Masi said, âIâm here because Iâve been through the program, and I want to do anything I can to give back what was given to me.â

That got the offender on task.

Next week weâll learn about the inception of the panels, and about the specific principles on which they were founded.

Julia Steiny, a former member of the Providence School Board, consults for government agencies and schools; she is co-director of Information Works!, Rhode Islandâs school-accountability project. She can be reached at juliasteiny@gmail.com, or c/o EdWatch, The Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, RI 02902.

— Julia Steiny
Providence Journal



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