Julia Steiny: Restorative Justice in Vermont 22 Years On


By Julia Steiny

“Fifty years from now, people will look back and see a truly transformative model.  One that applies not only to what human beings really are, but also what they really need from justice.”

I realize many a group of radicals, idealists or visionaries have made similar statements, also in pursuit of Justice, often in basements of churches or empty storefronts.

But this time is different.  The Restorative Justice ideas transforming Vermont’s public services are no longer new and radical.  At least, not there.  Since 1993, they’ve been taking root and growing in Vermont’s culture.  On this lovely June day in 2015, Marc Milhaly, President of Vermont Law School, makes the statement above to Restorative Justice (RJ) practitioners representing all 14 of Vermont’s counties, across different public sectors from justice to schools.  Today’s topic is how to take the existing good programs and scale them up.  Vermont wants to be a fully Restorative state, but currently has many pockets of Restorative excellence and not yet a full transformation.  Still, the hard work is laudably underway.

A bit of history

Back in the 1990s, Vermont officials decided RJ would help them shrink their prison system along with the rising costs associated with incarceration.  And especially in the case of juvenile offenders, the traditional punishment system tended just to make things worse.  Kids’ rebellion only hardened.  Corrections didn’t teach them the social skills they needed to be successful in the community, so the state funded its 14 counties to develop juvenile justice diversion systems designed to respond directly to the needs of crime victims and to get offending youth onto a productive path.  For these diversion systems to be considered “restorative” they needed to recognize that:

1.  Crime is a violation of people and relationships.  (As opposed to a crime against the laws of the state.)

2.  Violations create obligations.  (Such as restitution, repair of harm, perhaps apology)

3.  Restorative justice engages victims, offenders and community members — all those affected by the crime — in an effort to put things right.

Key here is “putting things right.”  You can’t do that unless the people who’ve been affected get a say in “what’s right.”  The traditional system has no place for victims to take an active role in decision making, not to mention involving the community in which they all live.  The new systems must be radically inclusive, because at the end of the day, victims and offenders need to be okay with one another as they return to their lives in their tight-knit Vermont villages.

However radical, the guidelines above are also very broad

Vermont’s spirit is not exactly “Live Free or Die” — that would be New Hampshire — but it too has fiercely autonomous towns.  The various counties created strategies that were different from one another.  Some adapted techniques used abroad in places like New Zealand and Australia.  Others studied the Mennonites and the works of Howard Zehr and developed their own.  But as a result, “each county as its own unique constellations of programs and agencies that deliver restorative justice interventions,” according to an as-yet unpublished report on Advancing RJ.

Not surprisingly, then, RJ is unevenly executed across the state.  Some conference attendees worried out loud that some initiatives were Restorative in name only.  And others had considerable concern about access to RJ services, which are hardly equitable.  In communities that embraced the work early and enthusiastically, victims and offenders are well-informed about their restorative options.  Elsewhere, not so much.  Just as zip codes can determine the quality of a kid’s education, to a lesser extent access to restorative diversion differs depending on where you live in Vermont.  The state would like access, training and fidelity to the model to be more standardized.

The state wants to exercise some quality control

Officials have formed a central Oversight committee, which was not uniformly popular among conference participants.  Finding a balance will not be easy, but they’re onto something critically important.  As other states go forward, they too will run into this problem.  How can a state’s judicial system — and schools, social services, other public services — balance centralized quality control with genuine, truly local community involvement?  Hard question, but fascinating to ponder.

Too much standardization runs the risk of letting the public system become more important than the people it’s supposed to serve.  God knows this is a huge danger.  Healthcare is a business that creates unhealthy conditions because hospitals, insurance companies and the like put their own corporate health first.  The education industry can become so threatened and self-focused that it becomes more important than those it is supposed to educate.

The balance will be challenging in every state.  The Vermont participants seemed clear that this natural tension would inform, but not hinder, their efforts to scale up.  Centralized quality control, equity and some standardization will always need to be delicately balanced with local culture, traditions and beliefs.  Otherwise, people will not, as Milhaly says, get what they need.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny