A group of volunteers has set up a new diversion program in Cheshire County, aiming to give certain low-level offenders a chance to avoid the traditional court process.
The Cheshire County Restorative Justice Program has not had any participants yet but is ready to start receiving them, said Dublin resident Leaf Seligman, one of the organizers.
The idea of a diversion program is to offer qualifying defendants an alternative to the usual path through the justice system. For instance, instead of pleading guilty and facing punishment — or, less commonly, taking the case to trial — a defendant might agree to participate in counseling or other rehabilitation-focused programs.
The Cheshire County program is focused on the lowest-level cases — things like shoplifting, minor motor-vehicle offenses and underage alcohol possession, according to County Attorney D. Chris McLaughlin.
McLaughlin said prosecutors can decide whether it would be appropriate to refer a particular person to the diversion program. The program is voluntary, so that person could opt for diversion or choose to stay in the normal court system.
On someone’s referral to the program, the prosecutor would conditionally dismiss the charges. “If they complete what’s expected of them by the people in the program, then the prosecutor’s notified, and the case is completely done at that point,” meaning the person avoids having a conviction on their record, McLaughlin said. “If they don’t, the prosecutor’s notified, and the prosecutor can then reinstitute the charges.”
In Vermont, state law requires the attorney general’s office to oversee court diversion programs in every county. New Hampshire law contains no such provision, according to McLaughlin. (It does contain language about diversion for juveniles.)
“Take unlawful possession of alcohol,” McLaughlin said. “So you have a college student comes in. They plead; they pay their fine. The next time, they could potentially lose their license.”
If the person instead goes through a process that leads them to reflect on his or her behavior, “to me, it’s a little more meaningful than just simply paying a fine or getting a suspended fine or whatever,” McLaughlin said.
The Cheshire County Restorative Justice Program came about after a group of private citizens approached McLaughlin about the idea. The county has provided the program with an email, a phone and space to use, Seligman said.
She said the program, formally opened in April, has about eight or nine volunteers.
Seligman explained how the process would work for someone referred to the program. First, they would meet one-on-one with a volunteer, who would get to know the person, their situation and the context around the behavior that landed them in court. The volunteer would also explain the rest of the process.
Then, over a number of weeks, the person would participate in three sessions with volunteers and other stakeholders. Though the qualifying offenses will typically lack a human victim, Seligman said, a shoplifting case could involve bringing in the affected store owner to talk about the crime’s impact.
As part of the first session, Seligman said, the person would sign an agreement laying out the steps they must take to complete the program.
One of the goals, she said, is to identify what led a person to break the law and give them the tools to change their behavior. For example, if someone has trouble finding and keeping work, a volunteer might help them with job skills. Or if a person occasionally grows desperate and steals from a store, they could work on a strategy for future emergencies, like thinking of whom they could go to for help in a tight spot.
“It’s about helping people learn how to be accountable, and not automatically expecting them to know what that looks like,” she said. “And I don’t mean to sound like people aren’t capable. I just mean, sometimes people don’t have a history of accountability.”
Seligman said the program is rooted in a restorative justice philosophy — the idea of bringing together offenders, victims and community members to consider the harm caused by a crime and the best way to address it.
That means people must take responsibility for their behavior, she said. But community members must also think about the societal factors that contribute to those actions.
“The core of this program is to say that as community members, we’re all stakeholders in every single person’s well being,” she said.