Business Spotlight Article #6: Springfield Restorative Justice Center
For Release 3rd Week of November, 2016
Contact: Caitlin Christiana - Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce
Business Spotlight: Springfield Restorative Justice Center
by Caitlin Christiana, Springfield Regional Chamber
What is Restorative Justice? The Springfield Restorative Justice Center’s website states that “crime causes injury to people and communities, and that restorative practices seek to repair those injuries by encouraging and supporting all parties involved in a particular offense to participate in its resolution. Vermont is a nationally recognized leader in the development of community-based restorative justice services to victims.
Goals of Restorative Justice:
To hold offenders accountable by identifying the harm done and determining what must be done to lessen the impact of that harm.
To increase communication, improve problem solving, and promote new ways to deal with conflict.
To advance neighborliness and build a strong sense of community.”
Fifteen years ago, a group of concerned local community members, including Wendi Germain, liked the idea of restorative justice and thought it would be good for Springfield. They started a steering committee, applied for a grant, and received a small amount of money from the Children & Family Council for Prevention Program. At that time, the program funding only allowed for working with children. Wendi was hired as director and served in the role for three years before that source of funding was no longer available, at which point another grant opportunity was sought through the Department of Corrections. This new funding provides between $250,000 and $300,000 per year, and now allows the Springfield Restorative Justice Center to also serve adults in the community.
The SRJC runs multiple programs, but all their efforts are encompassed by one simple philosophy. “If you do a crime or break a rule, there is an obligation to repair the harm – that’s what we facilitate,” Wendi says. The nature of crimes varies, and they can have physical and emotional impacts on self, family, friends and environment. There is a ripple effect that impacts not only the individuals, but also the community. And so the SRJC asks “how can we help folks to make better what they did?” There is a selective intake process for participation in any of the programs, and they don’t take people who say “I didn’t do it.” The process only works if the participants are willing to recognize the errors of their ways. “People need to accept responsibility and be willing to correct it,” Wendi explains.
The SRJC is one of twenty-two justice centers around the state. They have 3.5 full-time paid employees, including Wendi, and over fifty local volunteers who make up the advisory board and direct service groups. Community volunteers are the ones who hold the clients accountable, which helps to reinforce the importance of understanding collective impact. The Court can sentence people to participate, the police can send individuals, the Department of Corrections can send referrals, and the SRJC also accepts community-based referrals. Parents can refer children. For example, if a parent believes their child has been drinking, they can refer their child to the center for mediation, intervention and counseling. SRJC also helps to navigate neighbor to neighbor conflicts. The services are free to anybody in Springfield or surrounding towns. The organization provides a variety of programs involving probation, mentoring, circles of support and accountability, employment resources and housing solutions. For the housing program, they only accept individuals who were living in Springfield prior to incarceration (with the exception of their housing program in Chester with an overnight manager that currently serves three people). The Springfield Housing Program has six beds and everyone has their own apartment – it is not a rooming house.
Wendi talks about the transition from incarceration back to the outside world. “Imagine being in jail for one or two years, or ten, or twenty-five. Some inmates, when they get out, everyone they knew before has either moved away or died. All they have is their jail clothes. No money, no toothbrush, no deodorant. The pace of outside life is a dramatic change after years of being told when to eat, when to sleep, when to shower. Jail is a slow pace – it can take three days just to get permission to make a phone call. Suddenly you’re back in the community, with no car, no driver’s license, no job. People have to relearn how to function in society. Where do you even start? Usually they’re on at least thirty days probation with a gps ankle bracelet. They have to schedule their entire weeks in advance. Imagine you make your schedule and get it approved by your probation officer, and you manage to find a ride to the grocery store to buy food, and you buy cereal, but you forget to buy milk. You can’t just go back to the store to get milk. If you’re caught traveling off-schedule, you could go back to jail. For milk! So we help them to get the essentials: shampoo, soap, detergent, blankets, clothing and shoes. Items you need for survival. We’re not making excuses for people, but people need help.”
Community service is a big part of SRJC expectations. The clients are not living for “free” in the provided apartments, they actually “pay” through a number of community service hours to cover the cost of their rent. They are also expected to clean and maintain the property. Examples of community service activities have included the painting of fire hydrants on Main Street, set-up and take-down of a Halloween party at an area Church, helping to hang banners on downtown light poles, volunteering at the Vermont Apple Festival and painting in the Community Center. After storm Irene, the long-term recovery committee helped people to clean up. They also coordinate a program that provides 100 cords of wood to low-income community members. “We’ll work with anyone, it doesn’t have to be a non-profit,” Wendi elaborates. If a local business needs volunteers for a project, they should feel free to reach out to SRJC.
Another area of service that SRJC focuses on is “leisure skills.” People who come from a background of crime, dysfunction or poverty may not necessarily know how to relax, or how to spend their free time now that they’re trying to turn their lives around. SRJC offers what they call Learning Pods – mandatory classes that push clients to try something new that they wouldn’t normally try. The Learning Pods include a variety of activities such as painting, candle-making, and geocaching. They also have a community garden where the clients grow vegetables and then learn to harvest them, and make pickles, jams and jellies. And the SRJC contributes financially to the Springfield Art Gym, so that clients can use the facility. Wendi laughs as she recalls a story about one client who had a surprising and successful experience with a Learning Pod: “One day we did Finger Knitting, where you use your fingers to knit with yarn. So we’re all there together, women and men, learning this new skill. And this one guy, he’s a big guy, stocky, and bald with a goatee and moustache, real rough and tumble, and he has a lot of anger. He’s there finger knitting, and he gets really into it. He made this long scarf for his daughter. Then one day, he had a really frustrating meeting with his parole officer and he got extremely angry. He stormed in here, and he bellowed “Where’s the yarn!? I need to finger knit!!” He sat down and knit for a while – knitting calms you down, your brain can kinda check out, and it’s relaxing – so he knits for about a half hour, and then he was fine, and went along on his way! He has stayed out of jail for over a year now.”
A current client named Candi who recently spent some time in jail for drug-related charges shared her thoughts about the Springfield Restorative Justice Center. “They help you get back into the community and be accepted in a better light,” she explains. “Local people know these things about you, about your crimes, and it takes time and effort to change people’s perception of you. The program encourages working in the community. I go to AA. They encourage us to work towards a better future. And it’ll take a lot of effort, so it’s good to have help getting back on track. I’ve been taught to take care of myself first, before I can take care of others. It can be really hard. One day I had a melt-down, and a staff member, Jenn, spent the whole day with me. She talked with me, and drove me around to do errands. If you’re having a bad day, you can call them, and they’re always right there, ready to help. If you want it, then you need to be willing to work for it. It’s so easy to screw up, to lose track of priorities, fall into old patterns, and end up back in jail. But they help to disrupt the cycle, help us to build roots, and I feel thankful.”
Often it’s the little things that keep people on track. “The process of re-entering society is overwhelming. People forget how to have fun, how to laugh,” Wendi says. This is why SRJC is not just about work, work, work – they also emphasize relaxation and ways to take one’s mind off the pressures. In group sessions, clients learn to support each other and understand other people. It’s about attitude adjustments, and looking out for each other. “We can offer support,” Wendi continues, “but other people who are on the same road, clients supporting each other, that really helps. Just talking to people who’ve been there before. We teach everyone to treat people with respect. We set expectations, we hold a higher bar, and they live up to it. Or if not, they go back to jail. We believe in second, third and fourth chances.”
Last fiscal year the Springfield Restorative Justice Center served 91 individual clients through case management and housing, and 56 clients through restorative panels, and the program has a positive impact on taxes. It costs $56,000 to keep a male inmate incarcerated for one year, and $92,000 a year for a female inmate. SRJC’s funding arrangement requires that they save the taxpayers 200% of what they receive. So if they are awarded $300,000, they must save the taxpayers at least $600,000 by helping individuals stay on the straight and narrow and out of jail. “It’s very doable,” Wendi says. “There are different ways of defining success, but this is one example of a positive impact on the community. No more victims is the ultimate goal. We keep eyeballs on individuals that people are scared of. We see them every day, and have phone conversations with them every day. It is intense, providing support for those with burned bridges. They have to accept responsibility for what they did. Someone who disagrees about that responsibility is not meant for us. We expect our clients to do the work. We work with them, not for them.” Candi chimes in, “Yeah, it’s on us. It’s our choice whether we want to better our lives. They’re here to help us, but they can’t do it for us.
Springfield Restorative Justice Center is located at 96 Main Street in Springfield, downstairs from the Town Office. For more information, call 802-885-8707, email Springfieldrjc@vermontel.net, or visit their website www.Springfieldrjc.org, or Facebook page.