Home News and Features Which Path to Take: Court System or Restorative Justice? 

Which Path to Take: Court System or Restorative Justice? 

Carol Plante, director of the Montpelier Community Justice Center said the center is currently seeking additional restorative justice panel volunteers. Photo by Tom McKone.
He was 15, in high school, and “angry at the world for a while,” his mother said. He got into trouble “serious enough so it could have stayed with him for the rest of his life,” but it didn’t turn out that way. “He turned his whole attitude around,” she said. “He wants to make a positive difference, to be a role model. [Restorative Justice] was a very positive experience and outcome.”

The teenager could have gone through the court system, but the state trooper recommended him to the Montpelier Community Justice Center’s Restorative Justice Program, which his mother calls “wonderful” and credits for the dramatic change she saw in her son. The center’s staff and the restorative justice panel pushed her son, she said, when at first “he didn’t quite take responsibility,” and they genuinely cared about him.

Carol Plante, the center’s director, said restorative justice supports both the person responsible for harm and those affected by it. Its main goal is to strengthen the connection of the person who made a mistake to their community, rather than to further alienate them from it.

“When someone feels disconnected from their community, it’s easier to offend,” Plante said. “If they feel like they’re part of the community, then they’re going to have a different attitude about how they behave with the other people in their community.”

Engagement Over “Community Service”

The Montpelier Community Justice Center — one of 17 statewide — has dropped the term “community service” in order to emphasize community engagement. 

“We want people to find opportunities that help them feel like they are engaging in their community, as opposed to doing some free work for an organization,” Plante explained. Similarly, the program minimizes use of the words “victim” and “offender” because of their negative connotations. Shaming a person is not conducive to helping them.

Participation in restorative justice is voluntary, but it’s not offered to or appropriate for everyone, including those who commit very serious offenses or those who refuse to take responsibility for what they have done. The process usually begins with a referral from police; the program’s coordinator contacts the person who has caused harm and assembles a restorative justice panel — a group of trained volunteers who, in effect, are the voice of the affected community. Meanwhile, the outreach specialist contacts the person or people who have been affected and acts as liaison between them and the panel. The group meets at least twice.

The panel works with the parties to develop a “restorative agreement” that addresses what happened. For example, one person who went through the program because of a drug offense, wrote an apology and spoke in person to those he directly affected; he also researched and wrote a report about how drugs affect students, put in some volunteer hours, and participated in a student drug-awareness program.

Plante said that restorative justice can avoid criminalizing some behaviors that may be caused by mental illness or stressful circumstances. Rather than a criminal record that could spiral, what the person may need most is a support network to help get their life on track.

Supporting Those Affected by Harm

“Being a victim of a crime is such a violation of who you are, especially a physical assault,” said a man who was attacked by a strong younger man while walking his dog near his home. He stopped walking for weeks and went to therapy; however, restorative justice was an important part of his recovery from the attack.

“[The panel] was surprisingly intense, even doing it by Zoom,” he said. “One of the good things is I’m no longer scared of this kid. I feel sad. He is a scared young person going through a mental health crisis. This process humanized him for me.”

Another man affected by a crime said he liked this process because it went quicker than he thought court would go, and it actually holds the person who harmed him to greater accountability. He appreciated that if that person doesn’t follow through on his restorative plan, his case can still go to court.

As Plante put it, the restorative justice process is “more difficult than maybe paying a fine.” However, it usually achieves a much more satisfying resolution for all involved.

Funded by a variety of sources, including federal and state grants, as well as municipal support, the Montpelier Community Justice Center serves Montpelier, plus 10 other communities: Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex, Northfield, Roxbury, Waitsfield, Warren, Waterbury, and Worcester. It convenes restorative justice panels in Montpelier, Northfield, and Waterbury.

The restorative justice process is confidential for all involved. For this article, The Bridge spoke in detail with five people who have participated in it, with the promise not to reveal names or identifying information about cases.