Oak Bluffs Police to launch restorative justice pilot program

New partnership will work with offenders and victims of minor crimes.

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Christy Barbee, a restorative justice trainer, said the process is less about forgiveness and more about accountability, helping a person own an act and its consequences.

The Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program (MVMP) and the Oak Bluffs Police Department (OBPD) have partnered to launch a restorative justice pilot program on the Vineyard as an alternative to the traditional criminal justice process. The new program will gather victims, offenders, police officers, and other facilitators in a circle dialogue, to discuss the criminal event, the effects on the victim, and how the damage done may be repaired.

The initiative looks to work with primarily first-time offenders, and victims of minor crimes such as shoplifting, vandalism, petty larceny, and breaking and entering, according to Detective James Morse of OBPD. The victim has to agree to using the process, and the offender must admit to the crime.

“I think there are certain types of cases that come across my desk, and at prosecutions down at the district court, that a program like this is very relevant and a nice way to screen [offenders] away from formal prosecution, and would empower the people who were victimized to have a more active role in how the case played out,” Detective Morse said Friday at an introductory meeting on restorative justice at the OBPD. He has been with OBPD for more than 22 years.

MVMP invited Christy Barbee, an independent restorative justice practitioner from Concord, to speak at the meeting. She explained to about 20 people that restorative justice is a “set of principles” that acknowledges that crime is a violation of people and relationships, that it creates various types of harm, and that victims should be included to address the harm, needs, and obligations that arise from crime.

Ms. Barbee described it as another tool in a police officer’s toolkit, and a complement, not a substitute, to the traditional justice system. But it’s a shift that places the victim of the crime at the center of the discussion, rather than the offender and his or her punishment.

Ms. Barbee said that the typical process examines the law that was broken, what the charge was, who was to blame, and what the punishment ought to be.

“The Western criminal justice system is basically oriented toward punishing and sentencing,” she said. “So in the [restorative justice] world, that first question turns into, Who has been hurt or affected?”

Peter Meleney, a member of the executive committee at MVMP, told the audience that restorative justice “is centered around a radical notion in modern American life — getting people in conflict to sit in a circle and talk to each other.”

Founded in 1984, MVMP is a nonprofit organization that facilitates peaceful resolutions of a wide array of conflicts — family, divorce, workplace, or property disputes are some — and also offers programs to promote mediation and alternative dispute resolution.

The meeting offered information to people who were interested in being trained as facilitators of the circle dialogue process, where community members are trained to work with victims, offenders, and law enforcement. MVMP aims to hold a training toward the end of February.

Restorative justice can be transformative, Ms. Barbee said, because it brings about accountability. It’s beyond admitting guilt, and it’s beyond saying “sorry.”

“It’s owning an act and its consequences,” she said.

The circle dialogue approach helps people be accountable for their actions by creating the opportunity to hear how a victim was affected. She said it’s the dialogue that brings about an offender’s transformation.

“We don’t really know how someone has been affected by our actions until we hear it from them,” Ms. Barbee said.

Restorative justice is used around the country, and elsewhere in the world, in varied ways, as a method in prisons and even in dealing with murders. Detective Morse said that on the Vineyard, a murder case would be “clearly not appropriate,” but the technique could be used for minor crimes that are typical to the Island, such as shoplifting or breaking and entering.

He said he still is working out the specifics with the district attorney, but the initiative would require a referral from the police before an arraignment, and one of the goals would be that a criminal record does not attach to the accused.

Ms. Barbee said it’s up to law enforcement to determine what’s most appropriate. Although she has worked with adults, she said the initiative is often geared toward young adults — usually 17 to 25 years old.

“It’s really community policing at its best in deciding what’s appropriate here,” Mr. Meleney echoed.

Restorative justice isn’t necessarily forgiveness, and it’s not easy on offenders, according to Ms. Barbee. In her experience, many people are concerned that restorative justice is coddling a person who has committed a crime, but, she said, she knew her work with restorative justice was successful when a judge remarked to her once that she was “working the kids a lot harder than they ever did.”

She said that a circle dialogue is more difficult than simply “picking up trash for a few weekends, or writing an essay about why drinking is bad.”

“It’s hard for any of us to sit with somebody who you know you’ve done harm to. That in itself is a big thing,” Ms. Barbee said. “But a circle process usually concludes with there being an agreement by which the person who did the wrong is going to try to make it up. And that’s hard work.”