In Newport: An inside look at a chance for redemption
copyright the Chronicle February 19, 2014
by Joseph Gresser
NEWPORT — A slight man with dark hair and a neatly trimmed beard walked into a small room at the Community Justice Center here and looked around at the three people who, in the course of an hour’s conversation, could help shape his future.
Walter Medwid, coordinator of Newport’s reparative justice system, had already met Damion (for the sake of privacy, only offenders’ first names are used in this story). He shook his hand and introduced him to Ed Brochu, Isobel Marks, and Terry Collins, who also greeted the young man warmly.
Having pled guilty in November to unlawful trespass in an occupied dwelling, Damion was reporting to a reparative board, one of the less-heralded parts of Vermont’s criminal justice system.
The reparative justice program is intended to repair the damage to the community that a crime causes, and to persuade the person who committed the act to accept responsibility and make amends. The program is also designed to let the offender know that, once those goals are reached, he or she is again in the community’s good graces. It’s intended primarily for first-time lawbreakers who commit non-violent offenses.
“It’s a great thing whenever an offender has to admit what he has done and has to hear from the victims and hear from members of the community,” said Judge Howard VanBenthuysen about the program, which deals mostly with first-time lawbreakers who commit nonviolent offenses.
Through a discussion with representatives of the community, an offender is asked to consider who was harmed by his or her actions and make suggestions on how to repair the damage he caused. On occasion, victims of the crime participate, although they are not required to do so.
“It’s the community saying to the offender, we’re ready to accept you back when you get the accountability part under control,” is how Barbara Morrow, executive director of the Newport Community Justice Center, explained the point of the reparative justice process.
Or, as Mr. Medwid said, “We’re going to hug you, but we’re going to hold you accountable. That’s an interesting balance the board has to modulate.”
While the justice system operates largely behind the facades of grand public buildings, the state’s 17 reparative justice centers are run on a modest budget using volunteers who offer their time to help repair the damage from breaches of the social order.
Participation in the reparative board process is sometimes included in an offender’s sentence. Or, with their agreement, offenders can be directed to the program without being formally charged by police or the state’s attorney.
On the night of Damion’s appearance before the reparative board, Ms. Collins introduced herself as the chairman of his panel and explained the process.
Damion had been referred to the board as part of his sentence, which also included a suspended one-to-two-year jail term and 20 days on a state work crew.
He had already been through the first step of the reparative justice process, an interview conducted by Mr. Medwid.
“During the interview I get to know the person and understand the umbrella of circumstances around the offense,” Mr. Medwid explained several weeks before the meeting with Damion. “I gather information so when the reparative board meets they’ve read the interview and have an understanding of the client’s story.
“Sometimes in the initial interview I ask who was harmed,” he said. “At first, the answer is just me, or no one. As people go through what is generally a 90-day process, they are asked to think about what happened and to write about what happened,” Mr. Medwid said.
Once the members of the reparative board read about the client, their first job is “getting to know who the person is outside the offense,” he said.
After they gain a sense of the type of person they are speaking with, the board works with the offender to “develop a contract — how to make amends to the victim and the community, and how to help the offender learn to develop ways to avoid reoffending,” said Mr. Medwid.
Before Damion’s arrival, Mr. Medwid went over his report with his Thursday night reparative board. There are also three volunteers who meet on Tuesday nights.
Ms. Marks said she was worried Damion might not be taking responsibility for his actions and might be viewing himself as “an innocent bystander.”
Ms. Collins said, “No job, no diploma…I’m going to ask him for a five-year plan.”
Mr. Medwid suggested the board might want Damion to write something based on “what if you could turn back the clock?”
“I want to ask him how he’d feel if someone broke into his apartment,” Ms. Marks said.
“He needs a job,” Ms. Collins said. Ms. Marks agreed.
Ms. Collins told Damion the board would work with him to draw up a contract listing actions he must take within 90 days in order to complete the reparative process successfully.
The contract seeks to find “how to make amends to the victim and the community — how to help the offender learn to develop ways to avoid reoffending,” said Mr. Medwid.
“The contract doesn’t come off the shelf. It’s not a cookie cutter,” he added. “It’s a negotiation.”
Once the contract is agreed on, the offender goes off to fulfill its terms.
“Roughly 45 days after, the offender comes back to report on his assignments to give the board an update, sometimes in writing,” Mr. Medwid explained.
Ms. Collins quickly went over that ground for Damion. “We’re here to help you,” she concluded. “Have you given this any thought?”
Damion’s response was straightforward. “To tell the truth, I forgot about it until the phone call this morning.” His answer was offered without any hostility or defensiveness.
Asked to give an account of himself, Damion said he is 21. He has a son and a girlfriend, although the girlfriend is not his son’s mother. He said his girlfriend has two young children, and he spends as much time as he can with his son, too.
His girlfriend has been a hugely positive influence, he said.
“I was addicted to a lot of stuff,” Damion said. “I gave it all up.”
Although he dropped out of high school several years ago, Damion said he has made plans to go back to get a real diploma, not a GED.
He said he’s been fortunate enough to be accepted into a Northeast Kingdom Community Action program that has provided him with a nice place to live.
“There’s no smoking. Everyone has to leave by 10 p.m. and no one over 21 is allowed,” he said.
Noting Damion’s age, Ms. Marks asked him “How long can you stay?”
“Until I’m 22. Then it’s happy birthday, but you have to leave,” Damion said. The program has allowed him to save money to get his own apartment, he said.
“If you were 30 years old, what do you think you’d like to be doing?” Ms. Marks asked.
Damion’s response was unexpected.
“I want to be a marine biologist,” he answered.
“You need more than a high school diploma to do that,” Ms. Marks said.
“And you’re going to have to move away from Newport,” Mr. Brochu added.
Damion said he is also interested in welding, and board members suggested that he might learn marine welding as a good-paying job that could help with tuition expenses for his larger goal.
Asked about his family, Damion said he had been estranged from his parents, but that has changed as he’s begun to pull his life together.
Ms. Collins asked Damion to relate his offense.
He had been staying with friends at their apartment, he explained. When they moved out he left a pair of steel-toed work boots behind.
Damion said he was working for a tree service and had been told not to show up without the boots. His friends still had their keys and permission to go back to the apartment for a month to retrieve any belongings.
As he walked, Damion said he met a friend and they went together to the apartment building. When they arrived the friend went around the back and found the glass had been broken on the rear door. He opened the door, stepping on a piece of glass as he went, walked through the building and let Damion in.
Damion said he went upstairs, got his boots, and left the building to find that a neighbor, hearing the sound of breaking glass, had called the police.
“What could you have done differently?” Ms. Marks asked.
“I should have called the landlord ahead of time,” Damion said.
“Did you know the apartment to be vacant?” Mr. Brochu asked.
“Yes,” replied Damion.
“What did your girlfriend have to say?” Mr. Medwid asked.
“She didn’t like it.”
“Who was harmed in the community?” Ms. Marks asked.
“If I were one of the neighbors I’d be worried,” Damion offered.
“They didn’t know why you were there,” Ms. Collins said. “What can you do to repair the situation?”
“I can replace the window,” Damion suggested. “I don’t really know. I wish I knew more about the landlord.”
“Are you a fairly good writer?” asked Mr. Brochu.
“I don’t have good handwriting, but I can write,” Damion said.
“Then you can write a letter of apology to the landlord,” Ms. Collins suggested.
“You can replace the window as a gesture of good will,” Ms. Marks added.
“Who else? Your girlfriend — I think you should write something to her,” Mr. Brochu said.
“Yes,” Damion agreed.
“If the children were older, it would be good to write a letter of apology to them. I think you can write a letter to them,” Ms. Marks said, adding, “It won’t be sent to them, they’re too young.”
Being a father, said Mr. Brochu, “is the most meaningful test of responsibility you can ask for. You’re setting a standard, it’s important to get your act together.”
The discussion turned to the other aspects of Damion’s penalty. The board members were disturbed to hear he had not spent any time on the work crew and that he faced the prospect of an arrest warrant.
Damion confessed he has spent a great deal of time sleeping and watching television since he’s been out of work. He said he hasn’t been able to get himself over to the work crew.
“Do you agree you have a time management problem?” Mr. Brochu asked.
“What is it going to take to get you to do something tomorrow?” asked Ms. Marks.
The panel agreed Damion ought to present himself at the probation office the next day and telephone Mr. Medwid afterward to say he had done so.
“Assuming you can dodge the bullet on the warrant,” Mr. Medwid said grimly.
“If you were arrested would that jeopardize your living arrangement?” Mr. Brochu asked.
“Yes,” said Damion.
Mr. Brochu was beginning to be impatient. “Having raised three kids myself, I want to reach across the table and shake the hell out of you,” he said making vigorous gestures to match his words, “and say what you are doing is the hardest way. You’ve got to get off your ass.”
“If you were to start tomorrow, you could get 15 days by the end of the month,” Mr. Medwid calculated. “You have to get it done ASAP to be done by March 7.”
Ms. Collins spoke up, “Have you ever suffered from depression?” she asked Damion.
“I think so,” he replied.
“If depression is underlying this whole thing, maybe you should talk to someone,” Ms. Collins suggested.
“We want you to succeed,” Ms. Marks added.
“I think we should ask you to do a letter of apology to yourself,” Mr. Brochu suggested.
He warned Damion that an insincere letter would not fool the board. “We’ve been around the block,” he said.
“Don’t write them all at once,” Ms. Collins suggested. “Space them out.”
Ms. Marks urged Damion not to delay in dealing with his work crew obligations.
“You won’t like jail,” Mr. Brochu assured Damion. “Some like it, getting three hots and a cot — not you.”
Ms. Collins proposed that the contract should include a five-year plan for Damion’s life.
In the end he agreed to write letters of apology to the landlord, to his girlfriend, to his and her children, and one to himself. He also committed himself to meeting with his probation officer the next day and arranging to do his work crew time and to put together a five-year plan.
Mr. Medwid vetoed a requirement that Damion pay for the broken window because the board cannot make an offender spend money. Instead, Mr. Medwid suggested Damion volunteer to do some work around the building to help make up for any damage.
As Damion prepared to leave with his assignments, Mr. Brochu told him, “We want you to be successful, but most importantly we want to see you happy.”
He asked: “Do you think we put too much in the contract?”
“Not at all,” Damion said.
Ms. Collins concluded the meeting by telling Damion, “You deserve all the happiness and success in the world, but you have to want that for yourself.”
Asked to rate his happiness on a scale of one to ten, Damion estimated his current status as a six and a half.
After Damion left, the board members discussed his situation in terms very like those they used while he was with them.
Mr. Brochu repeated his desire to give him a good shaking.
One of the board members said, “He needs a break. Just one thing has got to go right.”
All three members of the Thursday crew have been working for the restorative program for many years. Ms. Marks is an artist who came to Vermont 20 years ago after retiring from the National Film Board of Canada where she worked as an executive producer. She also is on the Memphremagog Arts Collaborative (MAC) Center board of directors and performs with NorthSong.
Like Ms. Marks, Ms. Collins has about ten years of reparative board work under her belt. She spends her workday as general manager and director of homecare for Northeast Kingdom Homecare.
Mr. Brochu is retired from the IRS and volunteers his time as a driver for Rural Community Transportation (RCT) and as a guardian ad litem, representing juveniles or other people who cannot look after their own interests in the court system.
There have been no formal studies of the effectiveness of the ten-year-old reparative board system, but one has been commissioned from Norwich University by the state Department of Corrections, which oversees the program, Ms. Morrow said.
Newport City Police Chief Seth DiSanto, though, is a believer. He said his department often refers candidates to the program, and with good results.
“My personal experience is, we have few, if any, repeats because of our background investigations,” Chief DiSanto said.
Probation officer Shelia Martin, who ran the reparative board program in its early days, before the creation of the community justice center, agreed with its effectiveness. She was quick to say, though, that the results are not unique.
“In low-end probation, 85 percent of the people do what they have to do and never come back,” Ms. Martin said.
Still, she said, the reparative board can fulfill its mission well.
“I think it makes people stop and think, this is more than a bad decision. It affects someone, not just the victim, but the offender’s family. It affects a lot of people around the community.”
Or as Mr. Medwid puts it, “We hope people dig deep within themselves. When at a crossroads where they can go right or left they understand their thought process and the unseen consequences.”
Editor’s note: This is part one of a series on reparative justice.