HARRISONBURG, Va. — If one particular young man in Harrisonburg had stolen from his employer a few months earlier, he might have found himself standing before a judge, facing a possible jail sentence. Thanks to a new restorative justice program with the Harrisonburg Police Department, however, this young thief instead found himself facing his employer to talk about what he’d done and how he could patch things up.
“I can’t imagine a better first case,” said Josh Bacon, the facilitator who led the meeting between the two men. “This person could have been charged with a felony.”
Instead, the offender and his employer were able to speak frankly about their needs, agree on a restitution plan and reconcile the matter in a mutually beneficial way outside of the criminal justice system.
The new program, the first of its kind in Virginia and more than two years in the creation, was announced at a press conference March 19 in Harrisonburg.
Emphasizing the collaborative partnership, police chief Stephen Monticelli stood alongside members of the steering committee, including representatives of local law practices and the Commonwealth’s attorney, and restorative justice practitioners from Eastern Mennonite University and James Madison University.
“We kind of get to the point where we believe that the criminal justice system is the only thing that’s going to work,” said police lieutenant Kurt Boshart, who led the initiative from within his department. “It’s exciting to see where this program could go. I can foresee it catching on pretty quickly.”
The idea began several years ago, when Sue Praill of the Fairfield Center proposed it to the Harrisonburg Police Department. Praill directs restorative justice services at the Harrisonburg nonprofit.
Eventually, a broader advisory group began meeting with Boshart to plan the program in more detail. Also participating have been Carl Stauffer, co-director of the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, as well as defense attorneys, a representative from local prosecutor’s office and other community representatives
While change can be a slow process within the protocol-bound world of law enforcement, Boshart said reaction to the new program within the Harrisonburg Police Department has been generally positive.
So far, five officers have taken a restorative justice training. By this summer, he hopes that most or all of the department’s 94 sworn officers will be trained to identify specific crimes or conflicts that might be best handled through a restorative approach that focuses on victims’ needs and holds offenders accountable to meeting them.
One of the larger challenges facing the new program is communicating the fact that restorative justice emphasizes offender accountability and isn’t simply a get-off-easy approach to criminal justice.
Boshart said that as people learn more about restorative justice concepts, they understand how it can offer police more effective and affordable ways of dealing with some crimes than the traditional criminal justice system.
One of the main benefits of restorative justice is the way it humanizes both victim and offender, giving each a better understanding of how and why one hurt the other.
Praill points out that under the new program, officers who refer cases for restorative justice will participate in the group conference and benefit from this humanizing process as well.