Looking for legitimacy (3/25/10)

Community Justice Board seeks official status

March 25, 2010

By Greg Duggan

Observer staff

Since forming in 2001, the Williston Reparative Board has worked with hundreds of nonviolent offenders to help them avoid prosecution in the criminal justice system. Now, the board wants formal recognition from the town.

The Reparative Board, which recently changed its name to the Community Justice Board, works with people who have committed a crime in Williston. Many offenders go before the board after shoplifting from one of Williston’s many retailers. Other cases address vandalism. Most of the cases are referred to the Community Justice Board by police, and occur before a person is charged with a crime so that offenders have a chance to avoid compiling a criminal record.

“It allows the town to have a much more timely and direct response to the initial law-breaking behavior,” Derek Miodownik, restorative systems administrator for the Department of Corrections, told the Observer.

Miodownik appeared before the Selectboard on Monday night, along with Community Justice Board member and coordinator Adina Panitch, to request that the board be formally recognized as a town body. Such a change could make it easier for the board to obtain grants from the Department of Corrections; Miodownik said the department prefers to provide funding to municipalities due to their financial stability.

Official recognition would also give the Community Justice Board better access to training, technical assistance and quality assurance offered by the Department of Corrections to the 15 or so existing community justice groups in the state.

“Basically, they’re plugging into a mainframe of local, municipal and statewide community justice relationships,” Miodownik said.

Panitch also told the Selectboard that becoming officially recognized by the town would provide legitimacy to the Community Justice Board and its 14 volunteers.

“No one knows what we’re doing,” Panitch said, adding that becoming a town board would “make us feel more official to the people we work with.”

Rather than punishing offenders, the so-called “restorative process” — not punishment, Miodownik said — aims to teach the offenders how their actions harmed the community, store or individual victim.

The Community Justice Board has increased its meetings to four per month, up from twice monthly last year. At each meeting, two or three board members sit down with an offender to talk about that person’s crime. Panitch said discussion tends to focus on how the crime has affected the community, and what the offender can do to repair that damage. The board then determines a course of action for the offender — typically some type of community service and sometimes a letter of apology to the victim.

If the offender meets all the requirements of the restorative process, the incident is expunged from any criminal record. If the requirements aren’t met, the Community Justice Board refers the case back to police so the criminal justice system can prosecute the crime.

Occasionally, the board handles probation cases, and in those instances operates under the auspices of the Department of Corrections. That would remain the case if the Selectboard opts to officially recognize the Community Justice Board.

Selectboard member Ted Kenney asked if the town would need liability insurance for the Community Justice Board.

“I would like to see the town have liability insurance so we’re not paying a legitimate damage awarded for someone because it didn’t occur to us to get an insurance policy,” Kenney told the Observer.

He was unsure if existing insurance would cover the Community Justice Board.

Selectboard members did not make a decision on the issue Monday, and Town Manager Rick McGuire expects the issue to come up again at the board’s next meeting on April 5.

Panitch and Miodownik hope that a community service will truly become a community entity.

“People are often very grateful for having had this opportunity,” Panitch said. “They feel they made that one stupid mistake, and this has given them the chance to really clear their conscience, and their record as well.”

Anyone interested in joining the Community Justice Board should contact Panitch at 288-1555 or Ruth Skiff at 878-2381.