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Cases & Controversies
Won't You Be My Neighbor?
Vermont communities try welcoming back violent ex-cons with open arms.
ON A RECENT WEDNESDAY NIGHT, Stephanie, a 20-year-old recovering heroin addict with a nose ring, slumped into the Community Justice Center of Burlington, Vt. The municipal office smelled faintly of curry from the Onion River Co-op on the ground floor. Defensive and withdrawn, Stephanie came with an apology note addressed to the Brooks drugstore where she had been caught shoplifting. She apologized for the apology note, which was handwritten because she has no computer; for not having her volunteer work timesheet, which she'd lost; and for her life, which, she said ruefully, she was "just surviving." But Stephanie brightened when she was asked about distributing clothes for free for the Salvation Army, shyly offering that it was nice to feel productive.
After Stephanie left, the members of Burlington's "restorative justice panel" dug into bowls of pretzels and M&Ms. "She looks 100 percent better," remarked Carol Usher, a grandmother and artist. "When she first came in, do you remember how pale and frail she looked?" There were nods around the room from Usher's fellow volunteers: the owner of a plumbing and heating supply business, an insurance salesman, and a drug counselor.
People convicted in Burlington of petty theft, driving under the influence, or minor assault check in regularly at the CJC. Their participation is part of the sentence they receive in state court, and of Vermont's commitment to restorative justice, a label for programs that aim to help criminals make amends with their communities. It's a concept that has caught on in the past decade. Conservatives appreciate that efforts like Burlington's are less expensive than prison and that they extend responsibility for returning offenders beyond departments of corrections. Liberals are pleased by the programs' nod toward rehabilitation, an all but abandoned idea in corrections.
Vermont's nine CJCs, the first of which opened its doors six years ago, were popular and hardly controversial until the program ran headlong into another trend in corrections: re-entry. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice made $100 million available for state programs that help shepherd released inmates back into society. The catch is that the money is only for serious and violent offenders. After the Vermont Department of Corrections won a grant, advocates for victims of domestic violence lobbied hard against the Burlington CJC's plan to ask the DOC to fund a re-entry project.
In late June, after nearly two years of impassioned debate and four presentations to the Burlington City Council, the CJC won the city's approval for its proposal. In one of several concessions to the victims' advocates, sex offenders and batterers will be excluded from the new re-entry program for at least a year. But since the vast majority of Vermont's serious and violent offenders fall into those categories, the city's program can't last long with federal funding. The tension between the needs of returning offenders and those of domestic violence victims isn't going away, which means the opposition to the re-entry program won't either.
In the current plan, the groups that will monitor violent ex-offenders will mostly be composed of professionalssubstance abuse counselors, social workers, and parole officers. In some cases, they will also include one or two volunteer mentors, who will help offenders with everything from occupying their free time to "keeping their yards clean and their music down," in the words of Karen Lawson, who oversees the re-entry grant for the DOC.
In other words, rather than returning to their communities anonymously, ex-cons will come back under a watchful eye. Lawson says that will make neighborhoods safer. Groups that try to prevent domestic violence, however, think that under-trained mentors will be easy marks for exploitation. "Batterers are manipulative," said Cate Maclachan, a site coordinator for the Domestic Abuse Education Project, a local nonprofit. "After three years of working with them, I can still be thrown. There are many who are likable and will use the process to get their way."
Advocates like Maclachan also reject the assumption that helping batterers find a job and a place to live, as the DOC grant is designed to do, will stop domestic violence. They point out that many of the men convicted started with both, and they question the fairness of potentially putting a batterer ahead of his victim in a line for a housing subsidy.
Re-entry programs appeal to policy makers because incarceration costs money and crimes cost lives. The second cost has been driven home in Burlington by several violent attacks committed by paroled criminals who were being supervised by the DOC. But Mark Larson, a state legislator from Burlington who also directs the Domestic Abuse Education Project, says these failures don't support the case for mentoring batterers, as the DOC proposes. The department needs to do a better job of keeping communities safe, he said, rather than shifting responsibility from the state to towns and cities.
Debate like Vermont's have also taken place in countries like Austria, Canada, and New Zealand, where restorative practices have been employed and studied. Restorative justice teaches that crime victims benefit from meeting the offender and from learning that they were not personally targeted. That premise doesn't hold up in cases of domestic assault, though, as they are intensely personal by nature. And domestic violence groups question whether communities take such assaults seriously enough.
Proponents of restorative justice reject that criticism. "Somehow the domestic violence community seems to feel that only people of and from that community can really understand dynamics of domestic violence," said Dave Peebles, the Vermont DOC's Director of Community and Restorative Justice programs. "In most cases it's not that complex. Most people can understand with a minimum of training what the dangers are and what the dynamic is."
Peebles's view is shared by Janelle Gilbert-Fuller, the director of the CJC in Winooski, a small working-class town across the river from Burlington where the smokestacks of old mills poke out from the treetops. The boundary between serious criminals and the community in Winooski is already blurred. Twenty-three percent of the town's schoolchildren have a connection to the Vermont DOCeither their parents are supervised by corrections officers or the kids and teens have been charged themselves. Two percent of the town's population of 6,800 are returning high-risk offendersdouble the proportion that Burlington has.
In contrast to Burlington, Winooski's CJC is run from the police station. But Gilbert-Fuller proudly shows off the center's "soft spaces" (areas with carpet, or comfortable chairs, or changing tables), which are needed for the steady influx of children who come with their mothers when they report crimes. The CJC director said she'd love it if grant money were available for victims. But since it's not, more funding for offenders is almost as good. She thinks reparative justice gives the town a way to watch out for released offenders. "You can bet in a place like Winooski if he's hooking up with another woman, we'll know about it," she said about a returning batterer. "We'll send her a letter."
Some of the debate over reparative justice in Vermont seems to be about which acts the community accepts as a part of itself, albeit a dysfunctional part, and which it seeks to hold at a distance, leaving the fallout to professionals. Gilbert-Fuller thinks domestic violence is already a part of life in Winooski. "If the community said they didn't want this, I'd back off," she said of the re-entry program. "But they're not the ones who are scared. Here, everyone knows everyone else, and they all know someone in jail. It's Uncle Johnny next door who's in there."