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Julia Steiny: Vermont’s juvenile-justice system bucks nationwide trend

Susan Notes:

This is the second of four columns in a remarkable series about the nationâs oldest and most mature restorative juvenile justice system. Here is Part 1.

by Julia Steiny

In the late 1980s, communities frightened by the surge in national crime statistics pushed their state judicial systems to âget toughâ with offenders. By 2000, âzero-toleranceâ and âthree-strikesâ laws had stuffed inmates into U.S. prisons at world-record-breaking rates. Echoing this get-tough attitude, K-12 schools instituted their version of zero-tolerance, expelling and suspending students in droves. And today, the United States punishes its own people with a zeal unmatched by any other country.

But while the rest of the nation ramped up their punitive systems, leaders in Vermont searched for alternative ways to hold kids more accountable for their actions.

Many Vermonters credit Bob Becker with creating that stateâs unique restorative juvenile justice system. Back in the 1980s, when he was the social-services supervisor for Bennington District, Vermontâs system was rehabilitative, focused strictly on treating bad behavior, as opposed to punishing it. Becker says that back then âwe wanted the kids to be more accountable for what they had done, but to us that meant developing more competencies, more skills for being successful in the community.â

Vermont did not share the national lust for building prisons. âKids may need to be temporarily removed from the community for public safety, but that should be part of a planning process, not just for punishment. Kids learn nothing from punishment.â

Becker and his colleagues were impressed with the work and ideas of Dennis Maloney, then the director of community justice in Deschutes County, Ore. So three districts each sent a social worker to a conference to study Maloneyâs methods.

They came back totally jazzed about the potential of restorative justice. Over the next few years they began to implement a Vermont version of Maloneyâs ideas.

In a video called Peopleâs Sense of Justice (on YouTube), Maloney explains his approach with a simple scenario. Iâm paraphrasing: You come home from work and a woman is lying hurt, surrounded by her frantic children. A shadowy figure is getting away. The natural impulse is to attend to the victim first, secondly to the kids â which is to say, the community. And then third and last to the one who did the harm.

But Maloney says, âFrom the standpoint of ... the criminal justice system, who do we deal with first? The offender. Whoâs our customer? The offender. Who do we deal with second? Many people would say, the offender. One of the reasons we [criminal-justice professionals] have trouble with our public is that we do not attend to the victimâs needs first.â If at all. Essentially justice becomes revenge, with little or no healing power, even for the offender.

Maloney says of the victim-first focus, âWhen you travel the world, thatâs their natural sense of justice. Some call it an ancient idea whose time has come.â

The key to Maloneyâs ideas is to call together a mini-community to help the victim and offender figure out how to restore the harm. In Vermont, Becker and his colleagues fashioned ârestorative panels.â

The state contracts social-service agencies to vet and train community volunteers, who meet with kids who admit to their crimes and want their records sealed. Offenders tell their stories and answer any clarifying questions. Panels strongly encourage victims to come to tell their side of the story. Victims who participate have the satisfaction of feeling heard, and they tend to receive restitution far more often than in the regular courts. Victims are integral players in the Vermont judicial process.

As are the parents who accompany their kids. Generally parents are cooperative and appreciate being included in a team approach to dealing with their kidâs misbehavior.

Becker tells the story of the miscreant who knocked over an old lady in the street and stole her purse. The kid felt like it was no big deal, because he was caught before he had a chance to spend the money. In the panel meeting, however, the old woman described what had been a horrible experience for her. She was now terrified to go downtown on ordinary errands. The kid totally got how much harm heâd caused.

Panel meetings are often very tearful.

Becker says, âI think we forgot that the kids themselves were victims of their own actions. Ironically, taking responsibility to make it right with the people youâve harmed makes it much more conducive to moving on with your life in a positive way. Restorative justice is a very effective way of handling kids. Itâs incredible when you see the lights go on in some kidâs eyes, in the middle of a panel. They may not be happy about it, but they get what theyâve done.â

As is the panelsâ practice, the old woman, the volunteers, the kid and his parents worked out a restitution contract for him. It included doing community service in a home for the elderly. He completed his contract.

Becker says, âSome people think imposing community service is punitive. It is a consequence, but if done right, it gives a kid worth in the community. Community service is an opportunity to repair the harm theyâve done, to the extent possible, and move on. If there is monetary restitution, we strategize how to get it paid back. Not big money, but enough to make the point. If the kid likes animals and thereâs no other obvious community service related to the offense, weâll see to it he works with animals. The point is to make positive relationships. Build competencies. If they can actually learn a new skill on top of it, thatâs a twofer. But this is not punitive. Itâs to help your kid avoid future involvement with the system, juvenile or adult.â

In 1994, Becker moved to the state level where he began to introduce restorative practices statewide. In 1999, large federal grants helped his team implement the program comprehensively, with services to support restitution. Recently, he completed a three-year appointment as the juvenile justice director.

When the federal money dried up in 2004, the state issued a strong vote of confidence by assuming the full cost of the restorative panels.

The cost of the program helps Vermont maintain the lowest juvenile prison population in the nation. Weâll look at their one little locked facility next week.

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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