Trading arrests for accountability: 5 police departments, DA’s office using restorative justice program

By EMILY THURLOW

Staff Writer

Published: 02-08-2023 8:06 PM

On more than one occasion, Amherst police officers have responded to calls that involve an intoxicated person stumbling into the wrong house.

In one case in particular, the intoxicated person wandered into the bedroom of a child who has autism and who struggled with sleep routines.

Although the intent was not to break into someone’s home, that’s exactly what the person did, and in this case, the shock of a stranger walking in a bedroom that was not their own had an impact on the family that lasted far longer than one night.

But should the intoxicated person face charges of breaking and entering?

In this case, the affected family and the responsible party found a different solution through a restorative justice process, which emphasizes repairing harm caused by criminal behavior.

“It’s a very intimate process,” Amherst Police Detective Marcus Humber said. “You’re getting the person that was impacted face to face with the person that imposed the harm, sharing how they were affected, what it means, how they can make it better and what they can do to make it not happen again.”

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Amherst is one of five police departments in western Massachusetts offering a community-based restorative justice program as an alternative path to the traditional case resolution through the court system.

In addition to Amherst, the area’s other participating departments are Easthampton, Hadley, Northampton and South Hadley, as well as the Northwestern district attorney’s office. As part of that partnership, each police department and the district attorney’s office has agreed to pay $2,500 per year to help support the administrative costs of the program.

In 2020, the Amherst department partnered with Communities for Restorative Justice, a Concord nonprofit that seeks to rebuild trust and offer a path forward in the wake of a crime.

The organization, also known as C4RJ, took its first case in 2000 and has since worked with more than 1,500 people who were impacted by a crime, according to Executive Director Erin Freeborn.

“This process does work,” Freeborn said.

In addition to its work in western Massachusetts, the organization has partnered with 24 police departments in the eastern part of the state, as well as the Suffolk and Middlesex district attorney’s offices.

How does it work?

Cases are referred to C4RJ by police departments and the respective district attorney’s offices after a person has been arrested, often before an arraignment or even after an individual has been arraigned in court.

The majority of the cases that meet the criteria for the restorative justice process are misdemeanors, such as assault and battery, breaking and entering, malicious damage, vandalism and shoplifting. Incidents that involve domestic violence, sexual assault, or operating under the influence of drugs or alcohol are not part of the program.

Each partnering police department has the ability to set its own referral criteria.

For the process to move forward, C4RJ requires that the victim, also called the “impacted party,” agrees to have the case proceed through a restorative process instead of pressing charges or letting the offender be summoned to court.

For the perpetrator, if the process is successful, the offense will not lead to a criminal record.

In South Hadley, Police Sgt. Raymond V. Hebert said his department has the discretion not to arrest someone if they agree to embark on the restorative justice process.

“When we’re making an arrest and we feel like it may be appropriate for that person to go through C4RJ … I would usually reach out to Assistant District Attorney Becky Michaels, and we would ‘red flag’ the case,” Hebert said.

C4RJ also wants to be reasonably sure of a safe process. If there are physical or emotional risks, the organization may return the case to the police department or district attorney’s office.

And unlike case resolution through the court system where individuals can use the Fifth Amendment, or “plead the fifth,” and choose to remain silent and not answer questions on the grounds that it may incriminate them, the offender, also called the “responsible party,” has to admit some culpability.

“This program is looking for people who understand they did something wrong, they admit they did something wrong, and try to come together to heal that person and the individual that was affected,” Humber said. “Otherwise, the process doesn’t work.”

The ‘circle’ process

Once a case is diverted into the C4RJ process, volunteers from the organization are assigned to the case. The organization has approximately 150 volunteers who have put in more than 11,200 hours on cases, according to Freeborn.

Volunteers meet with the parties and begin what they refer to as the confidential “circle” process.

As part of the opening circle, the affected parties gather alongside C4RJ volunteers at a time and place of the impacted party’s choice. A law enforcement officer also joins the group, as do community members when warranted. The responsible party will then recap what they did and the impacted party explains how that crime affected their life, and the group then comes together to create a plan on how the responsible party will repair the harm done. Plans can include apology letters, restitution, or reflective exercises.

“This process allows space for the responsible party and the impacted party to engage, and the impacted party understands the ripple effects of harm,” Freeborn said.

Volunteers then work with the responsible party to make sure those agreed-upon obligations are met.

The group will then reconvene two to three months later in a closing circle to reflect on the process and see that all are satisfied with the progress.

A successful completion of the process means a record free of criminal offenses for the responsible party, Humber said.

Program in the infancy

Amherst police have sent 11 cases to C4RJ. While not all cases are able to be resolved through the process — whether through an unwillingness to participate or because the harm caused has left a more significant impact — the department has seen the benefit of the program. Among the cases that have been resolved was an incident involving a theft.

“It holds them accountable, because there are steps that they do have to take to make it right with the person that was affected,” Humber said. “In one of the cases that was adjudicated with us, they had to pay restitution, they had to do community service, they had to donate to a charity — they never would have got that in court. That would have been held open on a continuance or it would have been tossed out because the item that was stolen, it was returned.”

More often than not, people have been raised to believe in the theory of retribution, with the punishment being determined by the severity of the crime. With restorative justice, justice is conceived as repairing the harm caused by crime rather than a punishment, said Freeborn.

“Restorative justice gives victims a voice in deciding how the harms caused by crime will be redressed,” she said. “Sitting across from the person that they hurt and hearing how they’ve been affected by that behavior — this is a hard process.”

Though the program is still new in western Massachusetts and measuring its benefits is premature, Hebert says South Hadley has had seven cases successfully go through the process.

“It’s an effective way of taking care of someone who has had their needs impacted,” Hebert said. “I think it also has an impact on responsible parties — one could argue that you’re going to be doing more through the C4RJ restorative process than you would ever do for a court proceeding.”

In total, there have been 47 cases from western Massachusetts referred to C4RJ for the restorative justice process. In addition to Amherst and South Hadley, the district attorney’s office has referred 19 cases, Northampton has referred eight, and Easthampton and Hadley one each.

All of the cases during the pandemic were conducted via Zoom.

Moving forward, Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan said he’d like to see more police departments partner with C4RJ, citing the positive impact that the program has had in Middlesex and Suffolk counties.

“We definitely want to look at expanding it, making sure that that opportunity is there for every victim and offender,” Sullivan said. “It’s a vital tool in the community justice toolbox, because we need alternatives to litigation. … Restorative justice can often offer a better avenue to heal for victims, and a better way for offenders to understand the harm they may have caused by their behavior. So I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.]]>