BRUNSWICK, Maine — Maine is on the edge of a major reform to its criminal justice system that would replace the current punitive culture with restorative justice principles, an organizer of a daylong conference told participants Tuesday.
Sponsored by the Restorative Justice Institute of Maine based in Augusta, about 100 people, including district attorneys, jail officials, police officers, advocates, volunteers and employees with the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health and Human Services attended. Speakers from California, Vermont, Nova Scotia, Canada, and the United Kingdom addressed the theme of the conference — “Realizing our Vision of a Restorative State.”
“This can be the beginning of a new day in which we collectively catch a vision for a state that truly cares for its victims, focuses on prevention, is serious about rehabilitation and prepares persons for integration into society,” Richard Snyder, chairman of the institute’s board of directors, said in his opening remarks. “This can be the beginning of a new day in which communities work hand in hand with professionals in responding to crime and wrongdoing.
“This can be the beginning of a new day in which the financial costs of responding to crime are lowered, the revolving door stopped, and the waste of human lives is greatly diminished, if not ended altogether,” he continued. “This can be the beginning of a new day in which our children learn how to deal with conflict in ways that bring people together. This can be the beginning of a new day in which the culture of punishment is replaced by a culture of caring and healing.”
Exactly how that would be implemented statewide remains to be seen, but conference attendees agreed that a radically different approach to criminal justice in Maine is needed.
Snyder said he is not advocating that all those incarcerated be set free.
“There should be a place for preventing people from harming others,” he said. “But seventy-five percent of the people who are in prison shouldn’t be there. They have substance abuse issues and mental health problems that should be addressed. Many are incarcerated for minor probation violations.”
The institute is an outgrowth of the successful Restorative Justice Project of Mid-Coast Maine, which was established in 2004. It provides restorative justice practices within schools, juvenile justice systems and for adult males at the Maine Coastal Re-entry Center, formerly the Waldo County Jail.
Restorative justice looks at crime through a wider lens than the traditional criminal justice system does, according to Patricia Kimball, executive director of the institute. It acknowledges the harm caused by crimes and acts of wrongdoing, but poses a different method for addressing that harm.
“Instead of focusing solely on the individual that caused the harm and the best way to punish this person, [restorative justice] focuses on the victim that was harmed, the community that was impacted and the ways in which the offender can make things right,” she said.
Instead of asking: What happened? Who did it harm and how should the perpetrator be punished? — the restorative justice model asks: Who has been hurt? What are their needs? Who has the obligation to address the needs, to put right the harms, to restore relationships?
A smattering of restorative justice programs are in place around the state, primarily in programs for nonviolent juvenile offenders and in school discipline situations as an alternative to suspension. Programs have been implemented in Portland, Yarmouth, Old Orchard Beach and Belfast, according to information provided at the conference.
Jonathan Kidde, head of the statewide juvenile justice diversion program in Vermont, said that 80 percent of the juveniles charged with nonviolent crimes who take part in restorative justice programs in that state don’t reoffend.
When asked during a break about how restorative justice principles could be applied in the prank at Mount Desert Island High School where seniors dumped a large amount of fish bait into the building, he said the students involved most likely would have to listen to the janitors or whoever cleaned up the mess describe that task. Kidde said a group made up of school officials, other students and members of the community would decide the punishment for the juveniles involved.
In Vermont, as in Maine, 18-year-olds are charged as adults.
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said after Wednesday’s conference that her organization is making criminal justice reform a top priority for at least the next two years.
“Maine is at a tipping point on this issue,” she said. “The ingredients for reform are all there.”
Those “ingredients” include a willingness of stakeholders to consider an alternative, the economic necessity of reducing the high costs of incarcerating nonviolent offenders and a recognition that the current system is not working.
“Maine has existing programs that are working well, we need to upscale them to improve justice and safety statewide while saving money,” Bellows said.
Founded in 2011, the institute provides education, training, networking, technical assistance, research and advocacy regarding restorative justice. For more information, visit www.rjimaine.org, or call 619-3630.