‘A powerful social movement we’re involved with’

Midcoast Restorative Justice project powers into second decade

Wed, 11/19/2014 - 2:45pm

    BELFAST — This month, founders and staff at Restorative Justice of the Midcoast Project, known across four Maine counties as simply "RJP", are celebrating 10 years of helping change how local courts, schools and law enforcement handle crime and wrongdoing. From their conversational beginnings in the basement of the Belfast Unitarian Universalist Church in 2005, RJP is now an established nonprofit with a staff of eight and four programs in four Maine counties that address the juvenile justice system, as well as reentry processes for incarcerated adults.

    At a late afternoon Nov. 16 gathering at Darby's Restaurant in Belfast, Dick Snyder, who was instrumental to the creation of a Midcoast restorative justice effort, said: "The beauty of this project is that it is very contagious. Internalizing the philosophy and practice is about who we are as human beings. What's happening in Waldo and the four counties is exciting."

    He likened the organization’s first 10 years as a, “long gestation period.”

    At the Sunday celebration, Board Chairman Jay Davis introduced introduced RJP’s new executive director, Larraine Brown. She succeeds former director Margaret Micolichek, who stepped down earlier this year to participate in restorative justice efforts in Cambodia, Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

    Brown, RJP"s new director, has worked in the social justice movement in Canada and the U.S. for the past several decades specifically using the arts to strengthen communities and to promote change. Most recently she was the development director at Maine chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).  

    "RJP is moving into its 10th year,” she said. “We anticipate a year of celebration and increased community involvement. The project has had many impressive successes, and survived numerous challenges. Now we are at an exciting transitional moment in our history. This is the time to get our story out to the wider world." 

    The roots of the Midcoast Restorative Justice Project lie in conversations that began with the church’s Social Action Committee and the promotion of mediation practices. A similar effort was underway in the state’s correctional system, concentrating in regions such as Mount Desert Island, Old Town, Greenville and Waldo and York counties.

    In 2005, Waldo County Sheriff Scott Story submitted a letter to local newspapers, calling for improving the county's criminal justice system. Snyder called Story, and the first program RJP implemented was named, “Adopt a Prisoner.”

    “It very quickly became apparent that we had to change that name,” he said.

    In Maine, there had been a slow yet steady movement toward diverting cases out of court using alternative judicial processes like restorative justice. The effort began in the 1970s, with attempts of using mediation between offenders and their victims. The premise was, and still is, that crimes violate human relationships, weakening the social fabric. By requiring a wrongdoer to accept responsibility for actions and repair damage, social capital and fabric is better reclaimed.

    By the first decade of the 21st-Century, it was also becoming evident across the nation that the U.S. was disproportionately incarcerating its male population, compared to the rest of the world.

    According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2008, 92 million citizens had law enforcement records in state databases; by 2012, it is was estimated that in the U.S. more than one in four adults held a criminal record.

    Too many young adults, mostly male, were entering the system for minor offenses. And once those offenses become court documents, they are never erased. After fines are paid or sentences served, the data remains public record for adults and can carry lifelong stigmas. Those records can affect the pursuit of jobs, renting of apartments and houses, and entrance to higher education.

    Background checks of job applicants are commonplace, so much so that the federal government reassessed guidelines governing the practice of those checks. In 2012, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is responsible for enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws, updated (the first time in 20 years) its guidelines for employers using arrest and conviction records in their hiring process.

    "Many arrests are for relatively minor crimes....," wrote Amy Solomon, a senior adviser to the assistant attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice, in testimony to the EEOC delivered in 2011. "And what is often forgotten is that many people who have been arrested — and therefore technically have a criminal record that shows up on a background check — have never been convicted of a crime. This is true not only for those charged with minor crimes, but also for individuals arrested for serious offenses. A snapshot of felony filings in the 75 largest counties, for example, shows that one-third of felony arrests never lead to conviction."

    The federal court statistics project, overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice, reported that by 2006, the country's state courts reached a record high of 102.4 million incoming cases.

    "This total is largely due to higher volumes of civil and criminal caseloads, each of which rose about 3.5 percent between 2005 and 2006," the project said. "Most (54 percent) of the 102.4 million cases fall under the traffic category, which captures non-criminal traffic and local ordinance violations. Accordingly, many of the remaining civil, domestic relations, criminal, and juvenile cases, though fewer in number, are often more resource intensive for the courts to process and adjudicate. The total number of judicial officers in state courts has risen about 5 percent in the last 10 years."

    As court costs continued to rise and the number of civil and criminal records increased, there emerged parallel efforts to redirect those trends, both at the grassroots and governmental levels. That included RJP.

    On the heels of the 2005 conversations between Snyder and the Waldo County Sheriff, an anonymous RJP donor chipped in $500; others followed suit, and then the Maine Community Foundation awarded RJP a grant. From the those “meager beginnings,” said Snyder, rose an effort that now stretches across Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadohoc counties.

    RJP began collaborating with Story, the local courts and jail, and eventually the public schools. Staff mentored offenders and trained volunteers in restorative justice practices.

    Now, RJP has four programs under way:

    1) Restorative School Practices which works with schools to change the school climate with regard to behavioral issues resulting in detentions and suspensions.

    2) Community Resolution Teams provide juvenile offenders with an alternative to arrest, adjudication, jail and probation.

    3) Court Deferred Dispositions provide individuals facing potential jail time the opportunity to address their crime through a community conference process.

    4) Community Re-entry Program assists inmates from the Waldo County jail in more successfully transitioning back into the community.

    Sarah Mattox, court diversion coordinator for RJP, is based in Belfast. Her job is to organize restorative justice circles, or community resolution conferences. She collaborates with judges, county prosecutors, defense attorneys and schools in Knox, Waldo, Lincoln and Sagadohoc counties (Prosecutorial District 6). As her title connotes, she moves some cases out of the court room and into community halls.

    “The hope is to have a restorative practice in every school and a presence in every penal institution,” she said. “Thus, if RJP tracks data effectively, we should be able to demonstrate a quantifiable shift in the restorative ethos in the communities within District Six.  In so doing, the hope is to measurably improve the quality of life for citizens in these four counties as well as to be a model program that other districts in the state or the country can look to.”

    Since 2010, she has held circles for a range of cases, from theft of candy bars to trespassing, burglary assault and drug dealing.

    "Theft and property crimes are perhaps the most common sort of circles we do," she said, in a 2012 interview.  When asked more recently, she reflected: "Increasingly, we are seeing referrals for more significant offenses, things like manslaughter or large scale embezzlement. " 

    It is not uncommon to find her in a county court room, sitting with Roy Curtis, a regional corrections manager, conferring about which cases might qualify for an alternative judicial process.

    When she is not in court, or at area schools and community buildings, Mattox is at her desk in the RJP office she shares with three others, on the second floor overlooking downtown Belfast. RJP is small, operating on a $289,000 annual budget, with the majority of its income derived from state contracts and foundation and business grants. They include the Maine Department of Corrections, the JT Gorman Foundation, United Mid-Coast Charities, Lerner Foundation, Viking Lumber, Bangor Savings Bank and Maine Community Foundation.

    To former director Micolichek, who was at the Sunday celebration, the restorative justice efforts are a global movement of how to reintegrate prosecutorial philosophies with community health.

    “This is really big and powerful,” she said, remarking on her recent travels to Southeast Asia, where the United Nations is now using restorative justice methods in the tribunal courts addressing Pol Pot atrocities in Cambodia.

    “That is the place where healing happens, and it is important to make sure young people are hearing the stories,” she said. “That language is changing and is restorative justice is alive in this area.”

    This week is also International Restorative Justice Week.

    Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 207-706-6657