By Ted Wachtel
Vermont is the second-smallest U.S. state, yet it has achieved the most extensive restorative and community justice implementation. As of 2015, in a state with only 426,000 population, Vermont has established 20 community justice centers that reported 1,819 new restorative justice panel referrals and 58 new Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSAs) during that year.
Each CoSA represents an extraordinary investment by trained community volunteers who commit to attending one year of weekly support circles, a group of three or four volunteers for each of the 58 individuals who are transitioning from prison to their community. In a talking circle, each person speaks in turn without interruption, providing a forum in which everyone is guaranteed a voice.
“The COSA concept comes from a proven Canadian program, started by the Mennonite Central Committee of Ontario to provide ‘radical hospitality’ to people, who in the absence of community support and accountability, were likely to reoffend, thereby creating safer communities.”
I first met John Gorzyk, commissioner of Vermont Corrections, in the early 1990s, around the time he and his colleagues had the radical idea that it might be good to ask Vermont citizens what they wanted from their state’s justice system.
Their research indicated that citizens did not necessarily want tougher laws with longer prison sentences in response to crime, as politicians routinely assume, but they wanted something meaningful to happen.
Vermont residents expressed an interest in more involvement with the justice system, to allow communities to better respond to crime and conflict. According to the Community Justice Network of Vermont website, Vermonters “wanted repair, not vengeance; what was broken, fixed; what was stolen, returned; what was defaced, cleaned; what was destroyed, replaced.”
As a result of this research, in 1994, the Department of Corrections piloted “Reparative Probation,” to allow volunteers to voice the harm to community and facilitate a restorative agreement with those responsible.
In 1998, based on the success of those programs, the Department of Corrections (DOC) partnered with municipalities to develop the first Community Justice Centers (CJCs). Not only did Vermont residents achieve more voice and more choice, but they assumed more responsibility. In 2015, more than 700 Vermont volunteers contributed more than 22,000 hours in support of their local Community Justice Center’s efforts.
Vermont has pioneered systematic use of restorative and community justice with offenders. However, its community justice centers recognize that they could improve their efforts on behalf of victims, much like New Zealand has done.