Former Prosecutor Launches Restorative Justice Program at VLS

  • Former Windsor County State's Attorney Robert Sand is launching a new initiative, the Center for Justice Reform, at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vt. Sand was in his office on Dec. 13, 2017 in South Royalton. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/14/2017 12:09:41 AM
Modified: 12/14/2017 10:25:32 AM

South Royalton — A former Upper Valley prosecutor who has long been active in criminal justice reform has launched an initiative at Vermont Law School that will offer degrees and training programs to develop alternative ways to address crime and conflict.

The Center for Justice Reform will focus on restorative justice, an approach that, when applied in the criminal justice system, emphasizes rehabilitation and reconciliation with victims over the traditional penalty of incarceration.

“It’s about bringing healing, as opposed to a response that looks to punishment, as the desired goal,” said Robert Sand, the center’s founder, who is a former Windsor County State’s Attorney. “A restorative justice approach looks at who are the individuals affected by the harm, how can they have a meaningful voice in shaping the response, how can the person who has created the harm fulfill the obligations that they owe to the other party and how can we develop a response that leads to a strengthening of individuals and relationships?”

The concept of restorative justice isn’t novel, but Vermont Law School will become the first law school in the country to offer a joint Juris Doctor, a conventional law degree, and Master of Arts in restorative justice degree, the 59-year-old Sand said in an interview on Wednesday.

The center also will offer a professional certification program in restorative justice, provide opportunities to broaden curriculum at the school and eventually provide a platform to promote Vermont’s expungement law through the help of students and a faculty practitioner, according to a news release issued announcing the center.

Former Gov. Peter Shumlin signed an expungement bill in 2015, which allows offenders to erase a specific set of old convictions.

Rethinking the criminal justice system is important for several reasons, including “emotional and financial” ones, said Sand, who as a prosecutor more than a decade ago argued in favor of legalizing and regulating marijuana.

For many people, the typical path through the criminal justice system — a lengthy court process that ends in incarceration — fails to serve victims well in more ways than one. In his 22 years as a prosecutor, Sand said, he never had a victim say they felt better just because their perpetrator went to prison.

The restorative approach provides more chances for dialogue that can help a victim heal.

“What they really wanted was an opportunity to understand why the person did that, are they remorseful, are they willing to make amends to me and the community, and restorative justice creates those other opportunities,” said Sand, a Woodstock resident who is a 1987 graduate of VLS.

It is no secret that incarceration is costly too, about $60,000 annually per in-state inmate. Financially, it doesn’t make sense, and statistically, long-term incarceration doesn’t reduce recidivism rates, he said.

Over time, incarceration should be used less frequently, said Grantham resident Bob Gasser, a former New Jersey prosecutor who founded the Grafton County Drug Court, a program that provides an alternative to locking up offenders.

“We should be helping those who want to be helped and incarcerating only those who are a threat to us all,” Gasser said this week. “Restorative justice does that in a very simple but effective way by allowing the individual to own up to what he did and make amends. That one-on-one element is really important, and little is done (now).”

Restorative justice can be used proactively and in different settings, including in child protective services and education. It can produce better outcomes, Sand said.

For example, a restorative approach might allow building on a broken family’s strengths to keep a child in the home, or straying from the suspension and expulsion model and focusing on keeping kids in the classroom.

Gale Burford, a University of Vermont professor emeritus who now is a visiting scholar at VLS, said Vermont Law School was the “perfect home” for the Center for Justice Reform. Not only is it a law school, but it is one that specializes in environmental law.

“There are many things that can be done around environmental concerns without jacking them up to expensive adversarial concerns,” said Burford, who had a hand in forming the center and will teach two courses. “ ... Give people an opportunity to do the right thing and be held accountable through restorative processes.”

“My hope is that this will go well beyond the criminal justice application and filter out into work in human services and health,” he added.

The center will be run out of existing facilities on the VLS campus. There will be a host of courses offered, including one that will focus on trauma and victimization, a class Sand said he wishes he’d had a chance to take.

The course will explain how trauma can affect people and offer strategies on how best to interact with victims.

“I wish I could apologize for asking questions without the sensitivity” that might result from such training, Sand said, looking back on his career.

VLS will hire more professors for the degree program, which will start in fall 2018, Sand said.

“I am happy the school is making a commitment to another broad area, that being restorative justice,” Sand said. “I know that there will be student interest and demand for that.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at

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