Restorative justice center expands to meet demand

Cristalee McSweeney


Observer staff

The Williston Community Justice Center has restructured to expand its volunteer base and meet its rising caseload.

In recent weeks, the restorative justice organization, which adjudicates criminal cases from Williston and five surrounding towns, has empaneled a new Executive Board, nearly doubled its volunteer capacity and rewritten its mission and core values. The Williston Selectboard unanimously approved the changes at its July 27 meeting.

“We need to expand because of the exponential growth in cases we have — to be able to meet the demands of the work,” Williston Community Justice Center Executive Director Cristalee McSweeney said. The changes allow the organization to move beyond its previous cap of 30 volunteers, who work with those charged with crimes to take responsibility and make amends in the community. The new structure will allow for up to 50 volunteers.

Volunteer candidates will be interviewed and appointed by the new executive board. Previously, volunteers were interviewed and appointed by the selectboard, a process that proved too slow to keep up with the caseload, McSweeney said.

The organization is based in Williston but is seeing an increase in volunteer interest from the surrounding towns it serves, she said, including Richmond, Hinesburg, Huntington, Bolton and St. George. Members of the executive board described the work as rewarding and impactful.

“We need to help people move into a better life, to have healing instead of punishment, and that’s what this organization does,” said executive board member Melinda Moulton of Huntington.

“I believe in this work. I believe in second chances,” said Julie Longchamp, a former Williston Central School teacher who was appointed to the executive board. “It is so powerful to watch someone transform their life because of this process.”

McSweeney said the rise in restorative cases is due to a State’s Attorney in Chittenden County — Sarah George — who prioritizes restorative over punitive justice, as well as police chiefs, like Williston’s Patrick Foley, who value it as well. Most of the cases the justice center receives are referred by local police departments.

“A lot of those cases that traditionally would go through the court system are sent back to the police departments to (refer) out to the community justice center,” said McSweeney.

In creating the executive board, the community justice center also took the opportunity to rewrite its mission statement and create a list of core values. The new statement commits the center to “dismantling patterns of racial and economic disparity.”

Its new list of core values includes: equality, trustworthiness, responsibility, caring and relationships. With the new mission and values statements, the community justice center is taking on the work of the Williston Racial Equity Partnership, formed last year.