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Reparative Justice

01/14/08 5:55PM By Deborah Luskin
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(HOST) Commentator Deborah Luskin teaches writing and literature in hospitals, libraries and prisons throughout Vermont. It's a job that has inspired her to volunteer for a program that tries to keep people from ending up in jail.

(LUSKIN) Last month, the Department of Corrections released its 144 page "Plan to Reduce Correctional Costs." I was pleased to see that the report briefly discusses how Community Justice can help achieve these goals - in a small but important way.

For almost a year, I've been serving on a Reparative Probation Panel with four other trained citizen volunteers. It's one of many such panels around the state. Each panel meets monthly with low-risk offenders the court thinks will benefit from what is called Restorative Justice, which considers crime both a violation of the law and a violation of relationships. Because we're volunteers, and because Reparative Probation keeps people out of jail, the program doesn't cost much to run.

Last year, a third of my panel's cases were for Driving Under the Influence, Second Offense. Fortunately, most of these DUIs had no direct victims. So panel members stepped in and represented the community. One of us explained that while the offender was driving drunk, we were all at risk.

At our first meeting, we create a list of all those the offender has harmed and how, then we brainstorm for ways the offender can make repairs. We ask the offender to think creatively, so that the contract we write makes meaningful amends. One offender, a contractor by trade, agreed to do some carpentry for a local non-profit where AA meetings are held.

When there is a direct victim, they are invited to meet the offender and to express what they would like the offender to do to best repair the harm.

All direct victims are invited to participate, but it's fairly rare for a victim to show up. Recently, my panel moderated such a meeting. The victim, who had been rear-ended by a drunk driver, had been haunted by the memory ever since. She needed to meet the person who'd wrecked her car, sent her to the hospital and whose offense still shadowed her on the road.

The victim told her story first; the offender took responsibility and apologized. Panel members bore witness to this extraordinary exchange.

The offender had already agreed to perform a set amount of community service as part of her contract. It turned out the victim had a favorite charity in need of help and requested that the offender serve there. It has turned out to be a good match.

Not all our cases work out quite so well. In fact, we have some offenders who never show up, and others who never come back. But those who do succeed, succeed in a big way. According to a study of Community Justice Outcomes, Vermont's reparative program is effective. It helps to address crime in ways that money simply can't. When successful, Reparative Probation shows that people can change, and that the best justice isn't just about punishment - it's about recovery, too.

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