Reparative boards deliver justice through education, service

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Taking his seat before the Williston Reparative Board on Monday night, Essex teenager Nicholas Mott appeared nervous.

He straightened his navy blue, red and white striped polo shirt over his jeans. Once seated, he looked forward, one arm under the table, unrolling the cuffs on each pant leg over his black sneakers.

Dean Lanternier, sitting between board members Robyn Skiff Stirewalt and Lorayne Lapin, began the hearing: “What are you expecting to happen tonight?”

Mott, 18, had already appeared in court and was on probation for underage consumption of alcohol as a passenger in a traffic stop on Industrial Avenue in March. Slightly hunched, hands clasped together on the table, Mott responded to Lanternier’s question.

“I guess just find something I can do for the community to I guess apologize for what I did,” he said.

Mott understood better than most, Lanternier said, what the reparative board is all about.

Nearly six years old, the Williston Reparative Board hears cases on nonviolent offenses that occur in the towns of Williston or St. George. Petty theft, driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, underage drinking and possession of marijuana are common offenses that come before the board. Some offenders go to the board as a condition of probation; others go in lieu of court, provided they complete the reparations the board requires.

“They’re there to work with the offender to repair the harm done to the community” by their actions, explained Brenda Murphy, a Vermont Department of Corrections parole officer. “It’s not punitive by any means.”

Twice a month, two different panels of Williston volunteers – most are residents and one is a businessman – meet with offenders. Williston is just one of seven Chittenden County communities with a reparative board. Vermont is known nationally for its community-based restorative justice programs, according to the Department of Corrections Web site.

Restorative justice encourages victims of crimes and community members in which crimes have occurred to participate in their resolution. Boards hold offenders accountable by discussing the harm that was done, and creating contracts with actions that must be completed to repair the harm. Apology letters and community service are common contract requirements.

One case Monday night demonstrated the power of letting victims be part of the process. A 15-year-old offender had to listen as a teenage co-worker from whom she’d stolen $180 cried as she read a letter publicly about how hard she’d worked for that money, and that it was money she needed for college.

“I want her to know I feel deceived and let down,” the teen said.

After the hearing, the victim said she felt “10 times better” not just because her former co-worker said she’d repay the money, but also because she got to speak her mind and see the consequences for the person who’d stolen from her. The offender cried uncontrollably when she had to explain to the board why she stole, and the disappointment her actions elicited in her mother.

The reparative board Monday night represented Williston at large as the victim in Mott’s case. When asked how his actions affected the community, Mott was quick to respond.

“We could have been in a car accident because the driver had been drinking,” he said. “We were bringing the party into the car. We could have killed somebody. Anything could have happened. It wasn’t anything we thought about.”

Since nothing like that happened, Lapin asked him, are there other ways his actions affected others?

“It’s like a slap in the face to my parents, and a waste of time for the cops who could be arresting real criminals,” he told the board. His siblings, including an older brother, also were disappointed in him, he said.

After a 20-minute conversation, the board outlined their expectations. Mott would write letters of apology to his parents, his younger siblings, and his older brother. He would attend a driving under the influence workshop in which people who’ve had loved ones injured or killed by a drunk driver share their stories. He would write an essay about his response to that workshop, and write a research paper on the consequences of driving under the influence. And he would complete 30 hours of community service in Williston.

If he fails to complete the contract by mid-August, Mott must return to court where a punitive sentence will be imposed.

Brenda Massie, another probation officer who works in Chittenden County, said more than 90 percent of offenders complete their contracts. A study released earlier this year by professors at the Universities of New Hampshire, Vermont and Georgia, found that offenders placed on reparative probation instead of standard probation decreased the odds of a new conviction during probation by 23 percent. They also were 12 percent less likely to get another conviction after probation.

After his hearing, Mott told a reporter he didn’t understand why he had to “fix” anything in the community of Williston when he didn’t “mess up” the community. He conceded, however, that the process will affect his future decisions.

“You’ll look forward and think about everything you’d have to do again, and it’s not worth it,” he said. “There’s better ways to go about it.”

The Williston Reparative Board is seeking additional volunteers. For more information, contact Herb Sinkinson at the Department of Corrections at 651-1793 or