BELFAST, Maine — The dimly lit gathering space of the Unitarian Universalist Church made a cool setting last month for an event that promised to get a little hot under the collar.
The incidents that led up to the circle of earnest people wrestling with ideas of justice and punishment at the church began last August, when three young men from Belfast got drunk and engaged in a destructive, late-night vandalism spree. They broke windows at MacLeod Furniture, the Belfast Dance Studio and the city park snack stand, and left broken glass in City Park Pool.
“I felt it was a personal attack on my property, even though I didn’t own it personally,” Belfast Police Chief Mike McFadden said at the beginning of the community resolution conference at the church.
The conference was part of the Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast, which is an element of the area’s court diversion program. If the men successfully complete the project, their charges will be reduced to misdemeanors. Before that happens, though, they have to complete several tasks, including facing their victims and other affected community members. The conference at the church that day was organized to accomplish the face-to-face meeting.
“We talk a lot about accountability and repairing the harm,” Margaret Micolichek, executive director of the Belfast-based project, said later. “Restorative justice provides opportunities for the community to heal from harm and wrongdoing. That’s the sum of it.”
Micolichek helped to begin the Belfast-based project in 2005, after working in other states with juvenile offenders who were in the criminal justice system, an experience she called full of heartache. The detention center where she worked followed a different model from that of restorative justice. Instead of asking what happened, whom it harmed and what is the best way to punish a violator, the new model asks: Who has been hurt? What are their needs? How can the harms be righted and the relationships be restored?
“It gave me hope that we could really help those people. Not just warehouse, but work with people to help them address their problems,” Micolichek said of restorative justice.
In 2012, the court diversion part of the Belfast project helped to facilitate 33 conferences with 46 juvenile offenders, of which 45 were successful and had their charges reduced or dismissed. The project worked with youths in Waldo, Knox and Lincoln counties. Volunteer mentors provided more than 1,000 hours of their time and the violators generated nearly $4,500 in restitution and about 1,000 hours of community service.
Patty Kimball, executive director of the statewide Restorative Justice Institute of Maine, which is based in Augusta, said that the midcoast project’s juvenile program is so successful that she is interested in replicating it around the state. Recently, RSU 23 in York County received funding to conduct restorative practices training in its schools in the model of the Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast.
“That is an amazing program,” Kimball said Wednesday of the Belfast-based project. “They do it incredibly well. I think the model in Maine is one of the best from around the country. It’s really a quality program.”
Kimball said that one thing the group does well is to work with victims, offenders and family members before the initial community conference. Another positive aspect is the way staff members have strived to embrace and incorporate the restorative justice philosophy.
“One reason I think they’ve been successful is that they’ve done their homework,” she said. “It’s really powerful work. It’s transformative, it’s collaborative and it’s effective.”
Seen in action in the church, that work looked messy and hard. By turns, the young men held on to the talking stick that was passed around and explained what happened the night the vandalism occurred.
“We were drinking in the park, just walked around, broke into the pool and went swimming,” Hurley said. “I threw a chair into the pool. Then it was like a flip got switched. There was no turning back. We were really stupid and destructive.”
Saucier said that kids with nothing to do get in trouble thanks to alcohol, drugs and boredom.
“If the town doesn’t do something, more of this is going to happen,” he said.
Carol Good, president of the Friends of Belfast Parks, told the trio that when she learned about the vandalism, she was furious.
“I was really angry about it,” she said. “I also thought this was a childish, foolish prank, that somebody doesn’t have good judgment. It caused me to be more aware of possible risks.”
Some community members present in the room — even the victims — said that the incident made them consider whether the city can do more for its teens and young adults. But others vehemently disagreed.
“It’s not my responsibility to provide this community with something to do,” McFadden said. “It’s your responsibility to stay out of trouble.”
At the end of the conference, the group hammered out an agreement for the next few months that the young men must adhere to in order to successfully complete the program. They will each meet for an hour per week with a mentor, and be expected to pay $2,500 in restitution and fines. Also, they each need to complete four counseling sessions and 50 hours of community service.
In early winter, they will meet once again to pass the talking stick around the circle and discuss how they’ve made amends.
“It’s now up to you to write your own story and follow through on this,” facilitator Sarah Mattox told the trio at the end of the conference. “But please remember that there are lots of people eager to see you succeed and happy to support you.”