Editorial: A Different Type of Justice; Focus on Repairing Lives

People looking for ways to ease prison crowding and deal constructively with nonviolent offenders would do well to visit a church basement in White River Junction, settle into a chair in a circle of strangers and listen to the stories of people trying to set their lives right.

There, at the twice-monthly meetings of the Hartford Reparative Board, they would witness a different brand of justice. Rather than facing jail time and stiff financial penalties for offenses such as burglary and drunken driving, offenders get a chance to talk to a group of neighbors — volunteers who begin as strangers but end as friends — about what led them astray and how they might get back on track.

By any standard, the board has an impressive track record. Of the 127 offenders who appeared before it during the last two fiscal years, all but seven successfully completed the terms of their probation or fine-reduction programs, which generally include multiple meetings with the board and community service or other actions designed to mend the wounds of the victims and community they’ve harmed.

But statistics don’t tell the whole story. To witness the power of the reparative justice process, it’s important to sit in that circle and see offenders and the board volunteers — who range from an auto shop owner to a retired principal to an emergency room nurse — interact.

Take, for instance, P.J. Howe, who arrived before the board two years ago as an 18-year-old high school dropout with two children and a record of petty crimes. After being convicted of breaking into a series of businesses in his hometown of Bradford, Vt., Howe walked into the board with a chip the size of the Upper Valley on his shoulder.

In that first encounter, Howe sat slumped in his chair, his pale eyes barely visible beneath the brim of his baseball cap. He talked with angry pride of never backing down from a fight and described the adrenaline thrill of joining his buddies on a crime spree. Our hunch is that similar admissions in Howe’s past would have been met with a stern disapproval, or an even stiffer rebuke. In this case, though, the board members listened carefully and then tried to help Howe see not only the error of his ways, but also his potential to contribute something positive to his own life and that of his children and community.

“Lots of people make mistakes,” said board member Don Dickey. “The question is whether you can turn it around.”

Some offenders only appear before the board a couple of times, once to tell their stories and make a plan for reparation and another to report in on their progress. But others, like Howe, are summoned back again and again. Over the course of many meetings, Valley News reporter Jeffrey Good and photographer Jennifer Hauck saw Howe stand progressively taller, begin to look board members in the eye and take a measure of pride in his success at getting work and staying on the right side of the law.

Some might criticize the Hartford board — which is one of 82 operating statewide under the auspices of the Vermont Department of Corrections — of going too soft on offenders. Indeed, much of the board’s work involves talking with offenders about the reasons behind the bad choices they’ve made. The community service requirements are generally light, requiring them to spend a few hours — rather than hundreds — lending a hand.

But to see the program in action is to witness the power of talk and, more to the point, of listening. Some of the people who appear before the board are first offenders, otherwise productive individuals who slipped momentarily off the path. Others arrive with the baggage of troubled families and underlying substance-abuse problems. Most have been handcuffed, thrown in a squad car and forced to appear in a courtroom cattle call. They arrive at the board wondering if they are once again going to be slapped down and condemned for their mistakes.

Instead, the board members invite them to tell their stories. “It’s like a group of people in a room with a story, one person’s story,” says Chris Aquino, a former teacher and board member. “If people listen to each other and are present to each other, it’s transformative.”

If Howe is any indication, Aquino and her fellow board members are onto something. A year and a half after finishing the program, Howe has steered clear of trouble and won rave reviews from his boss at a West Lebanon restaurant. If he continues down that path, the courts and jails will be that much emptier and the community that much richer.