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Part One: Justice Redesigned: Hartford Board Works to Reconnect Offenders With Community

  • Apon arriving at his last meeting before the Hartford Reparative Justice Board in White River Junction, Vt., Hal Beebe is greeted by board member Lynda Day Martin of Thetford, Vt., on Nov. 1, 2011<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Apon arriving at his last meeting before the Hartford Reparative Justice Board in White River Junction, Vt., Hal Beebe is greeted by board member Lynda Day Martin of Thetford, Vt., on Nov. 1, 2011
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Raised in Bradford, Vt., P. J. Howe talks about his situation during a Hartford Reparative Justice Board meeting, in White River Junction, Vt. on Feb. 7,2012<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Raised in Bradford, Vt., P. J. Howe talks about his situation during a Hartford Reparative Justice Board meeting, in White River Junction, Vt. on Feb. 7,2012
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • While telling her story Katelyn Mitchell, of Lebanon cries during one of her meetings with the Hartford Reparative Justice Board. Her mother Laura listens beside her, on Jan. 3, 2012, in White River Junction, Vt. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    While telling her story Katelyn Mitchell, of Lebanon cries during one of her meetings with the Hartford Reparative Justice Board. Her mother Laura listens beside her, on Jan. 3, 2012, in White River Junction, Vt.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • P. J. Howe, talks to members of the Hartford Reparative Justice Board in White River Junction, Vt.,  on Oct. 17, 2011. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    P. J. Howe, talks to members of the Hartford Reparative Justice Board in White River Junction, Vt., on Oct. 17, 2011. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jodi Beebe pats her husband Hal's back, for his last Hartford Reparative Justice Board meeting in White River Junction, Vt., on Nov. 1, 2011. The couple now lives in Bethel, Vt.<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Jodi Beebe pats her husband Hal's back, for his last Hartford Reparative Justice Board meeting in White River Junction, Vt., on Nov. 1, 2011. The couple now lives in Bethel, Vt.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Susan Johnson, of Hartford, Vt., a member of the Hartford Reparative Justice Board laughs with Katelyn Mitchell as she pulls her coat on at the end of her last session with the board. Her mother Laura Mitchell is on the right on Feb. 22, 1012 in White River Junction, Vt. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Susan Johnson, of Hartford, Vt., a member of the Hartford Reparative Justice Board laughs with Katelyn Mitchell as she pulls her coat on at the end of her last session with the board. Her mother Laura Mitchell is on the right on Feb. 22, 1012 in White River Junction, Vt.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Apon arriving at his last meeting before the Hartford Reparative Justice Board in White River Junction, Vt., Hal Beebe is greeted by board member Lynda Day Martin of Thetford, Vt., on Nov. 1, 2011<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Raised in Bradford, Vt., P. J. Howe talks about his situation during a Hartford Reparative Justice Board meeting, in White River Junction, Vt. on Feb. 7,2012<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • While telling her story Katelyn Mitchell, of Lebanon cries during one of her meetings with the Hartford Reparative Justice Board. Her mother Laura listens beside her, on Jan. 3, 2012, in White River Junction, Vt. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • P. J. Howe, talks to members of the Hartford Reparative Justice Board in White River Junction, Vt.,  on Oct. 17, 2011. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Jodi Beebe pats her husband Hal's back, for his last Hartford Reparative Justice Board meeting in White River Junction, Vt., on Nov. 1, 2011. The couple now lives in Bethel, Vt.<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Susan Johnson, of Hartford, Vt., a member of the Hartford Reparative Justice Board laughs with Katelyn Mitchell as she pulls her coat on at the end of her last session with the board. Her mother Laura Mitchell is on the right on Feb. 22, 1012 in White River Junction, Vt. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

White River Junction — The men and women come to the church basement, settle into chairs among a circle of strangers, and find a different sort of justice.

Hal Beebe, a 46-year-old father of two, was stopped by police after his car was seen weaving back and forth across the center line in Fairlee and Bradford. Driving under the influence of marijuana and methadone, he acknowledges, he could have killed or injured himself or a fellow motorist.

The strangers encourage Beebe to reach out to a neighbor and offer a helping hand.

Katelyn Mitchell, a 21-year-old waitress, went out with friends to a White River Junction dance club during a stressful week and drank too much before taking to the road. She was arrested, ordered into a cruiser and taken to the police station on the same week that her horse died and her mother was to undergo open-heart surgery.

The strangers tell Mitchell to draft a letter to her imaginary daughter.

P.J. Howe, a teenage father with a troubled childhood, joined his pals in a breaking-and-entering spree that shook their small town and left a school, restaurant and community store in disarray.

The strangers tell Howe he has the potential to do so much better.

The criminal justice system traditionally features courtrooms, stern judges and prosecutors who often seek heavy fines, jail time, or both. Once convicted of their crimes, offenders are separated from their communities and left to endure their punishment alone.

The Hartford Reparative Board charts a different course. Rather than meting out punishment and isolating offenders, board members — volunteers who come from a range of personal and professional backgrounds — work to reconnect offenders with the neighbors they’ve harmed.

Every two weeks, the board gathers in a church basement to consider the cases of men and women who have been convicted of mostly nonviolent crimes such as burglary, shoplifting and driving under the influence. There are no judges, lawyers, bailiffs or metal detectors. The board members and their clients begin as strangers but are soon addressing each other by their first names.

The process is a deliberate one, the judicial equivalent of slow food. It begins with offenders telling board members the stories of how they went astray. They go on to discuss ways to set things right, not only with their direct victims, but also with the neighbors, friends and family who have suffered indirectly — and with themselves.

“It’s about relationships. The people who are offending are often alienated from the community, alienated in their own lives,” board member Don Dickey, a Lebanon lawyer and mediator, said in a 2012 interview. (Dickey died later in the year.) “It offers the opportunity for somebody to take responsibility and change their lives for the better.”

The Hartford board has been in operation since 2006, and is one of 82 operating around Vermont under the auspices of state corrections officials, said Martha McLafferty, the staff director. In the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years, a total of 127 offenders appeared before the board, with all but seven successfully completing the program. (Those who don’t succeed face a more traditional court-imposed sentence.)

Because the reparative board handles less serious offenses and operates away from traditional courthouses, it keeps a relatively low profile. But in a day when many are raising questions about the cost and wisdom of locking so many people away, the panel provides a glimpse into an alternative justice model that is growing in popularity across the nation and the globe.

To get a sense of how this brand of justice works, a Valley News reporter and photographer followed the justice panel’s work regularly from the fall of 2011 through the summer of 2012, then checked back in this year to see how three “graduates” of the program had fared.

Stopping the Spiral

Hal Beebe settles into a chair in the basement of Valley Bible Church, nestled in among the residential neighborhood and car dealerships off Sykes Mountain Avenue in White River Junction. His face is leathered, his hair salty and short. He wears hiking boots, jeans and a gray hooded sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up. A diamond stud in his left ear catches the fluorescent light overhead.

The members of the reparative board go around the circle, taking turns introducing themselves. They include a former high school principal, a painter, the owner of a car shop, a former teacher and sometime chef, a hot air balloonist, a lawyer turned professional mediator and an X-ray technician, Jane Spaulding, who explains her involvement by saying, “I feel like I’m making White River Junction a better place.”

Frank Kenison, the former principal of Hartford High, asks Beebe the simple question that begins each of the group’s meetings with offenders.

“How did you get here?”

One afternoon in May 2011, Beebe explains, he was driving his car after having taken a prescription painkiller and smoking a marijuana joint with a friend. “I didn’t feel that I was wasted.”

A police officer felt differently. After seeing Beebe drifting across the center line, the officer stopped him, put him in handcuffs and brought him to a hospital, where he tested positive for marijuana and methadone. He was charged with driving under the influence, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to serve six months to a year.

But then Orange County Judge Harold E. Eaton Jr. did him a favor. He said he would suspend the jail term if Beebe steered clear of drugs, paid a modest fine and worked out the terms of his probation with the Hartford Reparative Board.

Traditionally, the American criminal justice system devotes most of its time to the question of “what.” Trials feature hours of testimony used to establish the facts of a crime and aim to answer the question of whether the accused is guilty. Once that is settled and a punishment meted out, the case is over.

Members of the reparative board, in contrast, focus most of their energy on the question of “why.”

Board members explain to Beebe that they aren’t there to determine his guilt; a judge or jury had already done that. Instead, they want him to reflect on his crime, to gauge the impact it had on others and to work out a plan to set things right.

Shifting nervously in his chair, Beebe begins to tell his story.

Throughout his adult life, he has taken pride in being a good worker and family man. When his two daughters were young, he took a job at a summer camp so they could enjoy living in a place the family could not otherwise have afforded. After his brother died of a drug overdose in Connecticut, they moved to Vermont to escape the troubles and temptations of city life.

While nobody was hurt on the day he was pulled over, there was plenty of pain to follow. He lost his driver’s license, meaning his 18-year-old daughter or his wife — who suffers from chronic and disabling back pain — had to get up before dawn every day to drive him to his job as a cook at the North Woods Cafe in Bradford.

“I’m really tore up inside about what I’ve done to my family,” he says, tears welling in his eyes. “If there’s anybody I need to make reparations to, it’s them.”

A builder by trade, Beebe had been working at groSolar, an alternative energy firm. He worked his way up to project manager, he says, earning a good wage and piling up a nest egg of stock options. But then came an accident that injured his shoulder and left him dependent on prescription painkillers. When the economy sagged and the company let him and other workers go, he says, his downward spiral began.

Just before 4 p.m. on May 14, 2011, a Vermont State Police trooper stopped him and locked him into handcuffs. “I asked Beebe why he was driving over the center line and he advised that he had no idea whatsoever,” the trooper wrote in his report. “While speaking with Beebe, I observed his responses to be unintelligible, mumbled, and confused. Beebe’s movements inside the vehicle were sluggish and his eyes appeared to be watery.”

Sitting on the church basement chair, Beebe leans forward, his head down. Then he lifts his eyes, looking at the faces sitting around the circle. He’s lucky that the officer pulled him over, he tells them.

“Had something happened and I ever hit someone, I never would have been able to live with myself.”

For some members of the reparative board, the struggles of people like Beebe have more than a little personal resonance. Lynda Day Martin, a thin woman with serious eyes, listens carefully to Beebe.

“I’ve had a DUI myself,” Day Martin volunteers, recalling the “smack” of that troubled time. Even as she encourages Beebe to take his offense to heart, she urges him not to let it define him. “This incident that you were involved in doesn’t tell your whole story.”

At times, board members have to prod offenders to come up with a plan for reform. But Beebe needs no such push, and he lays out his strategy. The urge for painkillers might grow in him, he says, but he will fight it off by being honest with his wife and daughter, and by continuing with the counseling he had begun before his arrest.

And he has an idea for some volunteer work that would allow him to repay some of his debt to the community. Winter is coming and a neighbor of his — a man who had suffered a lifelong disability as a result of a drunken driving crash — needs help repairing a leaky wall and doorway before the cold sets in. Beebe will take hammer and saw and offer to help.

Smiles spread around the circle. “One hand helps the other,” says Lynn Jacobs, who volunteers on the board and also works as a staff member on a program aimed at people who have served prison terms and are returning to the community. “I like that.”

Making Amends

One night in November 2011, just after midnight, a Hartford police officer pulled over a white 2002 Pontiac Sunfire whose driver had turned without signaling. When 21-year-old Katelyn Mitchell rolled down the window, the officer could smell alcohol and see eyes that were watery and bloodshot.

After Mitchell struggled through a field sobriety test and blew just over the .08 legal limit on a breath test, she was arrested and put in the cruiser.

For the officer, it was a standard drunken driving stop. For the young Lebanon woman, it was the nadir of an already awful week — and the beginning of her journey through the criminal justice system.

Twisting a tissue in her hands, Mitchell sits amid the reparative board panelists in the church basement. She tells them that in the days before her arrest, she had to put down her beloved horse, Smitty, who was three decades old. On that same day, her mother had learned that she would have to undergo emergency triple bypass heart surgery later that week.

A waitress at the 99 Restaurant in West Lebanon, Mitchell had turned 21 just two months before the officer pulled her over. Along with a friend, she went to the Shenanigans nightclub — just up the street from the room where she now sits — to escape the week’s stresses, if only for an hour or two.

As the panel members listen, she doesn’t make any excuses for her offense, which a plea deal reduced from driving under the influence to careless or negligent operation. Sporting a nose ring and wearing a dark blue sweatshirt, jeans and purple Osiris skater shoes, Mitchell pushes a wave of brown hair from her eyes to dab at the tears.

She tells panelists that a year earlier, she had been the victim of head-on collision caused by a drunken driver. She didn’t get hurt at the time, she says, adding, “I’m really glad nobody got hurt this time.”

Her mother, Laura, accompanies her to the meeting. The mother keeps on her fleece jacket, but the collar is open enough so that panelists can see the scar on her chest from her recent heart surgery. Throughout the meeting, she frets aloud that it was the news about her impending operation that pushed Mitchell to drink that night.

“You do intellectually know that you didn’t do anything wrong,” Chris Aquino, a former teacher and professional chef, says gently.

“I know,” Laura Mitchell replies, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “It’s a mother thing.”

Everyone laughs.

Working with the panelists, Mitchell comes up with her plan to make amends. She promises to recognize the pain she has caused her parents, perform community service by helping handicapped people learn to ride horses, and make a plan for someone to remain sober the next time her friends went out for drinks.

And one more thing, the panelists say to Mitchell. Imagine yourself as a mother, one who has to write a letter to her daughter on her 14th birthday.

“You have a child from birth, you’re watching her grow. You try to give her good advice and you want her to be safe,” explains Jacobs.

In other words, put yourself in your own mother’s place.

Laura Mitchell pipes up. “Do I get to name this grandchild?”

More laughter, but then the conversation turns serious again.

“Maybe it’s a good thing that you got caught before you got into a real mess,” says Kenison, the former principal.

Mitchell agrees, and her mother chimes in. Laura Mitchell says, “She’s always been my responsible one, the one who makes good decisions.”

Aquino sits beside her, leaning close.

“In time,” she says, “she’s going to show you that she’s still the one.”

Adrenaline and Anger

The young man shuffles into the room wearing soiled carpenter pants, scuffed black work boots, a gray T-shirt and a black baseball cap pulled low across his eyes. The week of his 17th birthday, he and some buddies had gone on a tear through their hometown of Bradford, breaking into the public school and a succession of small businesses.

Rather than sentencing Howe — whose full name is Patrick J. Howe II — to a long prison term, a judge sent him to the reparative board after a relatively short stretch behind bars. As he slumps into a chair in the circle of volunteers, it’s not clear that he wants to be here.

McLafferty asks him, Why did you do it?

Howe looks up through pale blue eyes. “At that point in time, I thought it was fun,” explains Howe, now 18. “I did it because of the rush … adrenaline.”

Day Martin jumps in. “I like to do things that are fun, and I like adrenaline rushes,” she says. “But I wouldn’t choose to rip people off.”

Responding to questions from the volunteers, Howe tells the story of a troubled youth: Sent to an alternative school before age 10 after he “body slammed” a classmate; allowed by his parents to drop out of school at age 16; becoming a father himself as a teenager; a tendency to drink heavily and make bad choices; no job prospects but restitution to pay and two children to support; an ongoing problem with keeping his temper.

“I have a wicked short fuse,” he says.

The volunteers look at Howe They look at each other. Clearly, his will be no simple case, no life reshaped in one or two meetings. While offenders like Beebe and Mitchell admit wrongdoing, offer to do community service and stand a good chance of never turning up in the criminal courts again, ones like Howe present a more complex challenge.

Board members turn the conversation from the young man’s past troubles to how he might get on track before it’s too late — studying for his high school equivalency diploma, working on controlling his anger and impulsiveness, and landing a job, any job.

“What would you like your life to look like five years from now?” asks Aquino.

For the first time, Howe lifts his head and looks steadily around the circle. His voice growing animated, he says he would like to have an apartment instead of sleeping in a cheap motel room, some income to support his kids. “I just want to have a job so I can go out and buy the things I want instead of just taking them.”

“Lots of people make mistakes,” says Dickey. “The question is whether you can turn it around.”

Part Two: Offenders return to the community to find success, and frustration. Read it here.

Jeffrey Good is editor of the Valley News. He can be reached at jgood@vnews.com.

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