Justice Center staffers Martha McLafferty (left), Jonathan Tuthill and Chris Aquino

Lock up domestic abusers, right? Wrong. Why not invite them to join a supportive circle and talk?

Submitted 4 months ago
Created by
Jeff Good

When a guy beats up his wife or domestic partner, he should automatically be thrown into jail, right?


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Even as a decades-long push for tough criminal sanctions meets the needed awakening of #MeToo, advocates at a recent Vermont Law School conference said slapping handcuffs on domestic abusers makes them more inclined to violence, not less.

“When we shame people for using violence, we make them more likely to use violence again,” argued author Leigh Goodmark. She pointed out that the man charged with gunning down five people at the Capital Gazette in Maryland last week had been furious with the newspaper for writing about his abuse of a woman. 

Leigh Goodmark, arguing that criminal charges have not reduced domestic violence.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, victims’ rights advocates successfully argued for arresting men and women found to have battered their intimate partners. It seemed to make sense: why not lock away those who attack their loved ones?

Despite those increased penalties, though, rates of domestic violence rose from 2000-2010 even as other crime rates fell, Goodmark said. 

So, what’s the alternative? Slap abusers on the wrist and allow the cycle to continue?

Of course not.

Once victims are out of harm’s way, how about inviting abusers into a circle of victims and neighbors and getting them to talk about why they resorted to violence — and to agree to a concrete plan to make amends.

That process has produced powerful results with other types of offenses at the Hartford Community Restorative Justice Center in White River Junction. There, staff members and community volunteers help wrongdoers turn their lives in a better direction, and hold them accountable when they don’t. (Usually, frank talk in the justice office does the job. In the worst cases, court and corrections officials can order people who don't live up to the terms of their community justice agreements back to jail.) 

Every month, people who have been convicted of crimes ranging from simple assault to theft to impaired driving meet with a community panel to talk about why they strayed, whom they harmed and how they might stay out of trouble in the years ahead.

(Full disclosure: I am a volunteer community member on one of those panels. While I normally steer clear of writing about organizations in which I play a role, I’m making an exception here because I’ve seen how the Hartford center can make a difference in even the toughest cases.)  

At this point, justice system officials aren’t referring many cases of domestic violence, for fear that a less-than-tough approach will put victims at risk of new attacks. But the Hartford restorative justice staffers say it’s worth a try.

“You read the (criminal) affidavit and you think ‘This guy is bad news,’” says Chris Aquino, victim services coordinator. “But then you get a picture of who the guy is and what the issues really are.”

In restorative justice circles, offenders get a chance not just to talk about their particular crime, but also about underlying factors: anger issues, financial stress, substance abuse.

“A lot of the problems of the world play out in the walls of the home,” says Aquino.

Many of the justice center’s clients are coming out of jail or prison and working their way back into the community, getting jobs, paying rent, reconnecting with partners and children. That reconnection can be tough if there’s been domestic violence.

The first step to healing: Admitting they did harm. “For anyone to grow, they have to feel comfortable that they have a place to be open about what happened,” says Jonathan Tuthill, reentry coordinator. “Then they have to be open to change.”

The local conversation unfolds against a growing sense that restorative justice techniques could reduce prison crowding and keep people from offending again. Rather than shipping them of to the universities of criminality that prisons can become, why not give them skills to stay out?

Former Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand now heads the Center for Justice Reform at Vermont Law School. The 3-day conference he and his colleagues staged in Burlington drew alternative justice practitioners from around the nation, world and Vermont — which has become a testing ground for restorative approaches.

The Hartford center is a growing part of that effort. Its longtime director, Martha McLafferty, says she hopes law enforcement officials will send more domestic abusers their way. 

“When people feel heard and connected and held accountable,” she says, “things can change.”


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