BELFAST – From its inception a year ago, the Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast has become a proven success in Waldo County.
The program is designed to provide assistance to offenders by preparing them and their families for release from incarceration. A team of volunteers provides support by helping the offenders find jobs, housing and deal with their substance abuse issues.
The program also arranges meetings with victims where the offenders offer an apology.
On Saturday, scores of volunteers, project directors, victims and offenders gathered at the Boathouse on Steamboat Landing to describe their success and restate their commitment to helping convicted criminals turn their lives around.
“Restorative justice is not something new,” T. Richard Snyder, chairman of the project’s steering committee said. “We’ve just updated what we’ve learned from the Native Americans, who didn’t have a justice system and worked within their community. We are seeking to heal all who were involved. We are all part of one another, all neighbors and families.”
Snyder, who worked with inmates at Sing Sing prison in New York, said he decided to discuss the restorative justice concept with Waldo County Sheriff Scott Story after reading a news account about recidivism and overcrowding at the county jail.
Restorative justice and victim-offender mediation had worked in other areas of the country and when Snyder approached the sheriff, Story was more than willing to listen.
“The philosophy of warehousing [inmates] for us wasn’t working and we knew we had to do something different,” Story told the gathering. “We are trying to deal with the problems without the traditional methods of just putting people in a facility … We’re changing lives, we’re mending the social fabric of the community.”
Story said that if he had been told when he became a police officer years ago that one day he would be shaking hands and sitting down to dinner with offenders, he never would have believed it.
On Saturday the sheriff, the restorative justice teams, victims and offenders mingled together and shared a meal donated by local stores and restaurants.
“It feels awful good to go over and shake the hand of a young man I’ve seen at the bottom of his game and see him at the top now,” Story told the crowd.
One offender spoke to the gathering of how she struggled with heroin for years but was now involved in a methadone program that has allowed her to regain the trust of her family. She said the mentors and support groups have made a critical difference in her life.
A young man who said he had been in trouble with drugs and alcohol from an early age and in and out of jail repeatedly, said the program had given him a chance to turn his life around.
“When you have somebody to talk to, it gives you the hope you never had,” he said. “It gives you the seed to grow.”
A woman whose mailbox and those of her neighbors was vandalized by a group of juveniles said her face-to-face meeting with the offenders in a mediation circle was “probably the most moving time I’d had in years.”
She said curiosity led her to the meeting circle and when she left she couldn’t wait to tell her neighbors what happened.
“They made a mistake and it wasn’t the end of the world for any of us,” she said. “In fact, I think it’s the beginning of a new world for them.”
The program has also made a difference at Troy Howard Middle School. Principal Kim Buckheit said that detention was “not always an effective tool,” and that when the staff included a circle where pupils had to make apologies to those they harmed, incidents declined 40 percent as did the number of repeat offenders.
“Our goal is for these students not to go on to the high school and create problems and we think it’s working,” Buckheit said.