Justice for all.
Before I became the Prosecuting Attorney, my window into the world of crime was relatively narrow. As an attorney in private practice, I was able to select the types of cases I took and subsequently the types of crimes I felt comfortable defending. As a mother of three, I was adamantly against those who allegedly victimized children and therefore would not agree to represent those defendants. To be clear, I whole heartedly believe that each and every accused person has the right to a fair trial and should hold the State to the highest burden of proving their case beyond a reasonable doubt. That said, there were some cases where I didn’t want to be the attorney who helped facilitate that right for the defendant.
Representing the State, I see a much broader perspective. I sit across from child molesters, murderers and meth manufacturers almost daily and my perspective has only gained momentum as the reality of the crimes that occur in our community is baffling to me. Incarceration is the only answer for some of these people and frankly the only way that society might become safer.
However, there is another side to criminal justice that is more redemptive and holds great possibilities to healing all parties and creating a stronger, more vibrant community. Obviously, the types of crimes that I suggest for this approach are significantly different from the above mentioned. For some crimes, it is more appropriate to take an approach that at the end of the day will benefit the offender, the victim and the community. This is an approach called restorative justice.
In May, we launched a Restorative Justice (RJ) program in Lincoln County which is based on a premise of victim/offender mediation. The concept of bringing together the victim or a community board and the offender to arrive at a disposition of a case is happening only in one other county in Missouri and has been very successful. Green County launched their program nearly five years ago and they allowed us to visit their office and observe their RJ program in its process. With the help of our Probation and Parole office, the RJ committee and Judge Ben Burkemper, two community boards were comprised and Lincoln County’s Restorative Justice Program was born.
This program is offered only on certain types of cases and we strive to ensure the victim of the crime is agreeable to the program. The defendant cannot have any prior criminal history and they have to agree to many obligations in order to participate not the least of which is paying their restitution within the first year. Every defendant must also obtain their high school diploma or GED certificate, attend a prison tour, write an essay on what it means to respect others, write a letter of apology, gain employment and perform a minimum of 100 hours of community service.
We have several local businesses, the City of Troy and the City of Hawk Point that have been wonderful to work with providing venues for these probationers to complete their service hours. My goal is to place workers in environments where they can feel accomplishment, enjoy the work and build relationships with individuals rather than a more oppressive approach that probationers have grown accustom to. Statistically, people who are active in the community and have a sense of belonging to the area in which they live do not offend. RJ is the perfect way to help these people gain a sense of ownership in our community while making the victim whole. We have found that by fostering a dialogue between victim and offender, the punishment can better fit the crime, which leads to higher rates of victim satisfaction and offender accountability.
Let me give you a hypothetical example. The most common types of cases for restorative justice usually deal with property damage or theft. So let’s say that Jane Doe took $6,000 dollars of cookie money from the Girl Scouts. This is her first offense and she pleads guilty. Her sentencing is deferred while she participates in the restorative justice system. Jane will meet with her probation officer every week and the RJ board every month where they will review her progress in the program and hold her accountable to her victim and the community. They work with her to set monthly goals and strive to help her achieve those goals.
Once Jane has met every goal she is allowed to withdraw her guilty plea and the case is dismissed thus maintaining Jane’s clean criminal history. In the alternative, should Jane fail or refuse to comply with the boards’ directive, she would be sanctioned by the Board and ultimately terminated from the program to appear in front of the sentencing judge. I require that each participant enter their plea of guilty to the charges prior to the entry in this program. This ensures either compliance in the program or jail time because the defendant has already admitted guilt.
The idea is to give offenders an opportunity to remain engaged in the community as they satisfy the needs of the victim in the crime. This means offenders can move forward with their lives and remain in the work force, which may be their only way to pay back restitution. That helps victims move forward. RJ is not something that I feel is appropriate in every case; however, we all make or have made choices we wish we could change that can drastically effect our lives. I believe the RJ allows some the opportunity to right their wrongs and benefit the community, the victim and themselves in the process. When this happens I believe “justice for all” has been met.