As both prisons and courts have become increasingly clogged, more attention has been paid in recent years to the idea of justice reform. Perhaps in part a response to decades of politicians running on “get tough on crime” platforms — especially regarding drug offenses — reformers have taken aim at several specific dynamics.
Among them are conditions in jails and prisons, which much of the time are made worse by overcrowding, and recidivism, the idea being to lessen the chances that someone convicted of a crime will wind up in the same position again. Behind these efforts are two driving forces: treating even those who commit crimes as people worth helping, and lessening the burden — and thus, the cost, of trying and penalizing criminals.
Vermont has long been at the fore of these reform efforts. While its corrections policies haven’t always been seen as particularly progressive — the state has for years been criticized for sending local inmates to private prisons as far away as Arizona — its moves aimed at keeping people out of the system and returning them to society have been extensive. State law requires the attorney general to administer court diversion programs in every county for certain crimes, and the presumption under state law is that such defendants qualify for diversion unless a prosecutor explicitly objects.
Today, the state has a number of programs that use the principles of restorative justice — a philosophy that views crime in terms of the harm it causes and how the person responsible can start to repair the damage — at every level of justice from arrest to release from prison. Typically used for low-level crimes, the program might entail the accused attending sessions where he/she talks about the crime, what led to it, how it affected others, and how to make different decisions in the future. It may also involve restitution or otherwise repairing any harm done.
“To me, restorative is the idea of when somebody hurts someone else, rather than looking at it as a violation of a law or a rule, it’s looking at it as affecting people and relationships,” said Mel Motel, executive director of the Brattleboro Community Justice Center. The center provides state-funded restorative justice programs, though some rely on trained volunteers.
Now, as The Sentinel’s Paul Cuno-Booth reported this past weekend, officials in Cheshire County are considering a similar program on this side of the Connecticut River.
Perhaps influenced by its proximity to the Green Mountain State, Cheshire County has been among New Hampshire’s leaders in implementing alternative sentencing and diversion programs. The restorative justice concept is buoyed here by a group of volunteers willing to counsel those involved in low-level crimes, such as minor motor-vehicle violations or shoplifting; the county has not given the go-ahead for crimes in which an individual victim is harmed.
So far, though it’s been agreed to, no one has been sent into the program. The county commissioners are on board — though already under stress from state-level budgetary downshifting, they may have little appetite for adding the expense of a larger program.
And that, right now, is one limitation on the program. County Attorney Chris McLaughlin says to include crimes against individuals would mean involving the two victim/witness coordinators in his office, who already carry full caseloads. Similarly, using the principles of restorative justice to divert, say, those with addiction or mental health issues, would entail having in place the proper help for those subjects. The county already has alternatives in those areas, but extending them would mean adding staff.
Two studies done in Vermont have shown there may be a real value to restorative justice in lessening recidivism, which, in turn, lessens the pressure on police, the courts and corrections departments.
But for now, this is a baby step; one that shows some promise, but which will have to earn its keep to gain traction, and funding, in New Hampshire.