Coming home to a community
Restorative justice center helps offenders, crime victims
By GLYNIS HART
SPRINGFIELD, Vt. – Linda Mattoon was in line at the grocery store one afternoon when she overheard two young women talking about going before a judge.
“They were talking about how to get away with what they had done, essentially how they could get around the judge.” said Mattoon. “I said, ‘Gee, there must be a better way. If we could work with people to find a solution without avoiding the consequences of what they had done!’
“I had a friend who would go to the prison in Windsor and give classes. They were trying to start this restorative justice center, so my husband and I supported that effort.”
That was almost 15 years ago, and Mattoon has been volunteering in one way or another for restorative justice ever since. Today, restorative justice centers have been created throughout Vermont.
At the Springfield Restorative Justice Center, offenders can participate in a restorative panel where they and the victim work out what they must do to make things whole. SRJC is an umbrella organization with different programs: restorative justice panels, mentoring, and CoSA (Circles of Support and Accountability) in which volunteers form a “circle” around offenders re-entering the community. SRJC helps people coming out of prison or jail find their feet in the community again, and in the past has helped them find housing.
The idea behind restorative justice is to make the community whole after a crime has broken it: the perpetrator can do something to set things right, leading to greater satisfaction for the victim and less likelihood for the offender to commit another crime. It relies on mediation between the victim and the offender, so that the victim has a voice in what happens; it also treats the offender as a human being capable of change.
Although the idea of restorative justice was familiar to indigenous people of North America, its modern day resurgence began in the 1990s. It is widely used in the United Kingdom and Canada, as well as seven states, including Vermont.
Offenders who participate are generally in for low-level crimes. “Occasionally we get referrals from the schools,” said Frank Nobile. “Junior and high schools, and sometimes even younger.”
“That’s where it feels the best sometimes,” said Steve Matush, another long-time volunteer.
Matush, a former elementary school teacher, recalled one former student who, at age 12, was headed down a dangerous path. “He was kicked out of behavioral school,” Matush remembered. “He was a very marginal guy.”
The boy had been caught drinking, among other things, and was known to the police. Working with SRJC, the youngster was able to mend his ways and avoid getting a record. “He’s looking to go to college now,” said Matush. “It’s very cool.”
“Restorative justice believes in the concept of the person, and also in the victim,” said volunteer Steve Shama. “This is a system that really cares about people and goes the extra mile, and educates people.”
“In our panels we try to show our clients the ripple effect,” said Mattoon. “We show them how what they’ve done affects other people. And when they do good, that affects other people, too.”
“It’s about repairing harm,” said Matush. “They admit they’ve done something wrong, and they commit to do it better. We’re all working together toward a common purpose.”
The SRJC works to lower recidivism in several ways. According to data provided by SRJC, the restorative approach lowered the risk of reoffending from a baseline of 52 percent to 35.8 percent.
Circles of Support and Accountability are teams of volunteers that connect with someone getting released from jail or prison and help them fulfill their obligations, such as conditions of probation, and reintegrate them into the community.
“When people come out of prison, it’s like they’re getting released to Siberia,” said Nobile. “A lot of people don’t have family to go to and they need some support.”
However, having members of the community step forward to help them, spend time with them, and walk them through the process of re-integrating can make the difference between turning back to an old, familiar life and a new, more positive one. Participants in restorative justice comment on the difference between people who are paid to help them, and volunteers.
“I find people will come up to me, maybe six months or a year later, even five years later, and say, ‘Thank you,’” said Mattoon.
The SRJC is sponsoring the screening of a documentary about CoSAs, “Coming Home” directed by Bess O’Brien, on Jan. 16 at 6 p.m. at the Springfield Town Library. SRJC is always looking for more volunteers, as more volunteers mean they can help more people. It can be reached at (802) 885-8707.