Community Justice Center seeks diversity, youth

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

The Williston Community Justice Center is adding 10 spots to its volunteer board in an effort to diversify in ethnicity, age and gender.

As part of the expansion from 20 board members to 30, the center is creating two youth panels to handle cases involving young offenders, a category that has nearly doubled over the past six years, according to the center’s executive director Cristalee McSweeney.

The Community Justice Center takes criminal cases that are referred by police departments, judges and social services and adjudicates them through a restorative process. The goal is to encourage offenders to repair the harm of their actions to victims and the community and restore the offender to a positive life path. Offenders completing the process are relieved of any criminal charges.

“We don’t want one incident to define what they are and their ability to move forward in their future,” McSweeney explained.

The Williston Community Justice Center serves Williston and five surrounding towns. It handled 122 cases last year. Thirty-eight of those were youth cases, up from 22 youth cases in 2011.

“We’ve seen a pretty big increase in juvenile crime,” McSweeney said, noting a spike in “sexting” cases, careless/negligent driving, disorderly conduct and retail theft.

The addition of youth volunteers, ages 16 to 25, will offer a more understanding process for youth offenders, she said.

“It’s difficult to be 14 years old and come in front of volunteers who might not understand what’s happening socially and potential hardships they might be facing,” she said. “When someone can be held accountable by their peers, there’s a greater opportunity for learning and … a deeper, more meaningful dialogue. We’ve been missing that younger voice.”

The center convenes six three-member panels a month that hear about 10 cases a month. At 20 volunteer spots, there is a waiting list of people interested, according to staff member Steve LaTulippe.

The expansion to 30 volunteers will allow the center to clear the waiting list and start recruiting people with a variety of ethnic backgrounds. The center’s staff would also like to empanel a past offender who successfully completed the restorative justice process.

“We are a pretty homogenous board, and we really want to attract some diversity,” LaTullippe told members of the Williston Selectboard last week. “We are hoping to add some people of color. A member of the transgender community would like to be on the board.”

The board is currently 75 percent female.

“Offenders have commented on the lack of diversity,” McSweeney said. “This is an opportunity to grow as a center and serve everyone. Being able to have our center change with the changing times and community is an amazing opportunity for our center to embrace.”