After wrongdoing, a chance to make amends

Volunteers, victims guide restorative justice panel

Volunteers and coordinators from the Essex Community Justice Center pose for a photo May 18. From left: Pete Schmalz, Susanna Weller, Karen Dolan, Jill Evans, Karen V. Holmes and Carol Smith. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

Volunteers and coordinators from the Essex Community Justice Center pose for a photo May 18. From left: Pete Schmalz, Susanna Weller, Karen Dolan, Jill Evans, Karen V. Holmes and Carol Smith. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

When Milton police cited Eric Gaudette for damaging a neighbor’s house while shooting at a home range, he didn’t mean to make anyone feel unsafe, he said.

It was a crime nonetheless, resulting in a court case and probation. He was also referred to the Essex Community Justice Center to take part in its restorative justice panel.

Gaudette agreed to pay for repairs, write an apology letter and research the dangers of shooting in public areas. He also spoke with a few neighbors about the importance of gun safety.

“It was pretty important to make the family feel a little safer in knowing that I understood what was going on,” he said. “I don’t feel anybody learns from just having to pay a fine.”

Most crimes cause a ripple effect, touching lives far beyond just the offender. For victims, the moment of lost control can be hard to forget.

The center looks to return victims their power by giving them a chance to meet with the perpetrator and describe the crime’s impact.

The process differs from the punitive criminal justice system where, “The question is what happened, who did it and what should we do to them,” said Jill Evans, the center’s director.

Restorative justice instead asks what happened, who was harmed and how can it be repaired, Evans said.

Along with Milton, the center serves Essex, Colchester, Underhill, Jericho and Westford, with dedicated panels for the first three.

Victims can choose to participate, Evans said, while keeping them informed.

She highlighted a case involving two young boys who, after a night of drinking, sprayed graffiti on a widow’s garage where her husband used to run a business. The boys then found an axe and cut down three trees in her yard.

The woman isolated herself out of fear, believing the graffiti meant the incident was gang-related and her husband’s business was targeted. But after attending a panel, she agreed for the boy to come paint her garage.

The boy also offered to replant the trees, yet she felt there was no need. Instead, she suggested he plant trees in the community.

“Had it gone to the criminal justice system, she might have never known,” Evans said.

Karen Dolan, restorative justice specialist and panel coordinator, recalled the many times she’s called a victim about the panel. She starts by telling them she’s sorry for what they’ve been through. Her words are often met with surprise.

“They’ve never heard that before,” Dolan said.

The restorative process

Cases are referred to the program in a number of ways.

Most commonly, law enforcement, including school resource officers, refer them before charges are filed. Even if they’re cited, offenders can still be referred through the Rapid Intervention Community Court, a program run by the Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s office that allows low-level criminals avoid a criminal record by attending restorative justice.

It can also be used a part of a probation sentence post-conviction.

The panel often handles retail thefts, disorderly conduct, larcenies, simple assaults, embezzlements and trespassing.

Once a case is referred, coordinators meet offenders to gauge whether they’ll engage in the process.

“They have a choice to make,” Evans said, and a vital one at that: Those refusing to take responsibility aren’t accepted.

Meetings show offenders how their crime affected others and help come up with ways to repair the harm done.

With the spray-painted garage, reparations are obvious. In other cases, volunteers must be creative, Evans said.

She cited a recent example where a woman stole candy from a store. Caught shortly after the incident, the woman already returned the candy and wasn’t sure what else she could do.

The panel learned she had little money and stole the candy for her children for Easter. They also knew she struggled tracking her expenses, so they suggested the woman develop a budget to bring to the next panel meeting. They also brainstormed three ways to celebrate holidays without spending money and five resources to help prolong income.

Identifying a crime’s motivation helps volunteers come up with ways offenders can avoid falling back into those behaviors, Evans said.

She praised Essex police Chief Brad LaRose for the department’s efforts toward restorative justice.

“That’s some of the best work,” Evans said. “Helping to divert people out of a process you don’t ever want them ending up in, because people don’t succeed there.”

Connections

Carol Smith has volunteered at the center for about three years. She serves on the panel and as a member of the Circle of Support and Accountability program, which helps recently incarcerated people looking to turn their lives around.

“I’m from the Bronx, OK. I didn’t always know you could be involved,” Smith said, adding there are great rewards in helping make Essex a better place.

Pete Schmalz, who moved here 13 years ago and serves on the panel and community advisory board, cited a similar motivation. Volunteering taught him what’s going on in the community, the good and bad, he said.

It’s also shown him the pressures faced by today’s youth, making it easier to talk with his 13- and 15-year-old children.

“As a society, we recognize that people make mistakes, and they should get a second chance,” Schmalz said.

Evans admits volunteering for the panel is a big commitment. She pointed to the application process, which includes reading a book, attending an interview and observing several panels.

Yet she believes the process helps foster the center’s own little community where volunteers feel supported in their efforts.

For Schmalz, he thinks the role helps offenders see their potential by “trying to build them up to look at their life and their plan in a positive way,” he said.

He recalled one case where two boys broke into a swimming pool — something he admits he’d done as a kid.

“I can explain to them that they’re not bad kids for doing this,” he said. “They just made a bad choice.”

Interested in joining the panel? Contact Susanna Weller at 662-0001 or email susanna@essexcjc.org for more information.

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