If one particular young man in Harrisonburg had stolen from his employer a few months earlier, he might have found himself standing before a judge, facing a possible jail sentence. Thanks to a new restorative justice program with the Harrisonburg Police Department (HPD), however, this young thief instead found himself facing his employer to talk about what he’d done and how he could patch things up.
“I can’t imagine a better first case,” said Josh Bacon, the facilitator who led the meeting between the two men. “This person could have been charged with a felony.”
Instead , the offender and his employer were able to speak frankly about their needs, agree on a restitution plan and reconcile the matter in a mutually beneficial way outside of the criminal justice system.
The new program, the first of its kind in Virginia and more than two years in the creation, was announced at a press conference today [March 19, 2015] in Harrisonburg. Emphasizing the collaborative partnership, HPD Chief Stephen Monticelli stood alongside members of the steering committee, including representatives of local law practices and the Commonwealth’s attorney, the Fairfield Center, and restorative justice practitioners from Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) and James Madison University (JMU).
Among those endorsing the program and expressing support were Marsha Garst, Rockingham County Commonwealth’s attorney, EMU president Loren Swartendruber and JMU president Jonathan Alger.
Garst, who spoke of her reputation for being “hard” on crime, said that restorative justice should not be misinterpreted as being “soft on crime.” The victim-offender meeting is a difficult and emotionally challenging task for both parties, she added, but the process offers the offender the possibility of moving back into a positive role in our community.
“We kind of get to the point where we believe that the criminal justice system is the only thing that’s going to work,” said HPD Lt. Kurt Boshart, a 26-year veteran of the force who led the initiative from within his department. “It’s exciting to see where this program could go. I can foresee it catching on pretty quickly.”
Backed by veteran officer
The idea began several years ago, when Sue Praill with the Fairfield Center first proposed it to the HPD. Praill directs restorative justice services at the Harrisonburg nonprofit, which has been offering them in the community for nearly 20 years.
Eventually, a broader advisory group began meeting with Boshart to plan the program in more detail. In addition to Praill, the group included Fairfield Center Executive Director Tim Ruebke and Bacon – an associate dean of students at James Madison University who has overseen wide implementation of restorative justice practices on that campus. Also participating have been Carl Stauffer, co-director of the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (from which Praill and Ruebke hold master’s degrees, and where Bacon has also taken graduate-level coursework) as well as defense attorneys, a representative from local prosecutor’s office and other community representatives
“It’s been exciting to have partners from the police department who are so committed to [the program],” said Praill.
More effective, affordable possibility
While change can be a slow process within the protocol-bound world of law enforcement, Boshart said reaction to the new program within the HPD has been generally positive. So far, five officers have taken a restorative justice training. By this summer, he hopes that most or all of the department’s 94 sworn officers will be trained to identify specific crimes or conflicts that might be best handled through a restorative approach that focuses on victims’ needs and holds offenders accountable to meeting them.
One of the larger challenges facing the new program is communicating the fact that restorative justice emphasizes offender accountability, and isn’t simply a get-off-easy approach to criminal justice. Boshart said that as people learn more about restorative justice concepts, they understand how it can offer police more effective and affordable ways of dealing with some crimes than the traditional criminal justice system.
“For us to turn our head from that is a disservice to our community,” he said.
While the program remains a work in progress, its broad parameters have been established by the advisory group. After police officers refer cases, a committee from the advisory group will screen them to ensure they’re appropriate for the program. Depending on a case’s specifics, facilitation would be handled either by the Fairfield Center or staff from Bacon’s office at James Madison University.
One of the main benefits of restorative justice is the way in which it humanizes both victim and offender, giving each a better understanding of how and why one hurt the other. Praill points out that under the new HPD program, officers who refer cases for restorative justice will participate in the group conference and benefit from this humanizing process as well.
“Nobody calls the police and says, ‘Hey, we’re having a great time,’” said Boshart.
Improved relationships for all
Instead, officers generally show up when things have gone wrong and often interact with people during their not-finest moments. By being a part of the restorative justice conference, he hopes officers will be able to see these same people in better light. At the same time, people whose interactions with law enforcement are often negative will have new opportunity to develop better relationships with police officers.
For now, these conferences will be led on a volunteer basis by trained facilitators like Bacon, Praill or others from EMU. If the caseload grows beyond volunteers’ capacities, the program may need to find new sources of funding. At this point, however, all involved are concentrating on laying the foundation for a successful, sustainable program.
“Part of the idea is to go slowly enough that the program is organic to this area, and so that there’s confidence in the community that this is a good program,” said Ruebke.
As that happens, and as the caseload grows, figuring out funding “can be a good problem to have later,” added Boshart.
Off to good start
Later will come later; for now, the new program is off to a remarkable start. During the conference for the first case, the offender told the employer he’d stolen from about the desperate circumstances in his life that had encouraged him to steal.
The employer, in turn, talked about how he’d once found himself in a very similar situation. After he committed a similar crime, though, there wasn’t this sort of alternative. He was convicted of a felony, served time in jail, and after getting his life back in order, didn’t want his employee going down the same path. They agreed on a plan for restitution. The employee was paired with a mentor. The employer volunteered to become a mentor for someone else in the community.
“This process allowed for the victim and the perpetrator to come together and tell their stories, said Bacon. “None of this it would have happened if it just went through the normal criminal process. I was just blown away … It’s why I love doing restorative justice.” In his opening remarks at the press conference, Bacon credited EMU’s Howard Zehr – who is known internationally as the “grandfather of restorative justice” (and who will be honored at a May 23 event) – for mentoring Bacon when he took courses at EMU and began implementing restorative justice practices at JMU.