Restorative justice program brings closure, healing following hard situations
Three Rivers Restorative Justice works with juveniles and adults to building community by focusing on the harm done and holding those who’ve caused the harm accountable.
ROCHESTER — Owning up to your mistakes. That's the principle behind restorative justice — another tool for addressing crime by building accountability.
Restorative justice brings together harmed parties and those who’ve caused harm. The process, more so than the criminal legal system, focuses more on the damage done and holding those who’ve caused the harm accountable to the person aggrieved.
“We see it with our justice system, where somebody commits a crime, you go to jail. Typically, you don't get to own up to the responsibility for what you've done,” said Abe Kamara, program manager for Three Rivers Restorative Justice. “If you haven’t had any kind of restorative conversation to bring closure or healing, then you did your time or you’re not really sorry. You can’t really interact with that person."
Taking responsibility for what has been done is especially important in smaller communities as those who’ve caused the harm are likely to return to their community.
“The restorative process is putting you in front of the person you harmed. You’ve got to see the impact from what you've done,” Kamara said. “You have to have empathy, in a sense, to relate that that could happen to you. So the decision you made and the ripple effects it had on yourself, the people that are involved and the community, and that carries a little bit more weight.”
The grassroots, nonprofit, organization was formed by community members and has signed memorandums of understanding with agencies such as the Rochester Police Department, the Fillmore County Attorney's Office and community correction in Olmsted County.
The first referral for the restorative justice process came in June 2020 via Dodge-Fillmore-Olmsted Community Corrections.
The organization is seeking volunteers who have been harmed by crime to participate in the restorative conference. The organization is also looking for volunteer facilitators as well as committee members. More information can be found online at www.trrj.org or by email at ThreeRiversRJ@gmail.com or by calling 507-396-4095.
Since then, nearly two dozen cases have come to Three Rivers and its volunteer facilitators. Ten of those cases have been completed through the entire reparations process. Kamara said two cases that had been referred to Three Rivers were turned back as there were pending civil lawsuits.
The more personal approach that the restorative justice process offers, versus the traditional criminal legal system, allows a community to build more togetherness and understanding and creates an increased well being, said Alex Bunger, Dodge-Fillmore-Olmsted Community Corrections supervisor.
“When you think about crime, crime impacts a specific victim and it also then impacts the broader community,” said Bunger. “If you can really use those restorative approaches, communities can better understand why the harm occurred, and actually, many times, the restorative process brings about a better understanding or ways that community members are connected both to the defendant, the client and then their own neighborhood.”
The restorative justice process can also move more quickly than the traditional court system. Even without a backlog of cases created by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, courts are not known to move expeditiously in many cases.
“That is another key piece with crime and community, the shorter that window of harm to addressing it, the better off people are,” Bunger said. “When things drag on, it leaves people with a sense of emptiness, a lack of fulfillment.”
We don't just want to be another system that you just get thrown into where you do it and then six months down the road we see you again. It’s more of finding why it is happening.
The restorative justice process
Currently, Three Rivers Restorative Justice handles incidents that involve juveniles and can be referred through an agency like community corrections or the police, or can be referred through word of mouth. While a majority of the cases are with youth, the restorative justice process is open to adults.
Once the referral has been made, the organization reaches out to the youth as well as the harmed party to see if both are interested in taking part in the process. If both agree, one-on-one preparation meetings are held and then a victim-offender conference is scheduled.
During that conference, both the offender and the person harmed get to speak about the incident and how it impacted them. From there, a reparations agreement is created that outlines the steps an offender needs to take to rectify the situation. It can include things like paying restitution if damage was caused, attending therapy or doing volunteer work.
What is shared during the restorative justice meetings is typically confidential and not used in any pending criminal case that could arise as a result of the incident that brought a person to restorative justice.
Once a reparations agreement is signed and work begins, referring parties such as the Rochester Police Department or DFO Community Corrections are given updates on the progress an individual makes. That information comes through Kamara, who gets weekly updates from participants.
That follow through, making sure that progress is being made and reparations agreements are being followed, is important for the success of the program and the participants. If a participant is not responsive, they can be sent back to the referring agency and, if applicable, charged with a crime.
A person who has caused harm is also only allowed to go through the restorative justice process once. For about 95% of participants who are going through the Three Rivers program, this is their first interaction with law enforcement or the courts, Kamara said.
“We’re not naive to say this is going to be the fix-it-all for everything. That's just not realistic. But most of the kids we're touching are either the first time or this must have been something that's happened and haven't gone to this magnitude before,” Kamara said. “We don't just want to be another system that you just get thrown into where you do it and then six months down the road we see you again. It’s more of finding why it is happening.”
Beneficial for both sides
Rochester Police Capt. Jeff Stilwell said that while the police department has been partnering with Three Rivers for about a year, it wasn’t until recently that a memorandum of understanding was signed.
Work is still underway to educate the community on the restorative justice process and why the department feels in many cases it is a better alternative for juveniles and those impacted by their actions, Stilwell said.
“What we find, particularly people in the system that maybe haven’t been victims of crime, we assume that what every victim wants is a punishment, a loss of freedom,” Stilwell said. “What we really find a lot of times, victims just want to know why they were the victim, why someone chose them. What restorative justice does for victims that want it, it allows them to ask those questions the court system never has time for them to ask.”
Stilwell said that while courts often hold an offender accountable, the courts very rarely make an offender sit and listen to the impact their actions have had.
“Our goal as a society should be to reduce recidivism, and I think the system is somewhat failing in that regard, and we are hoping restorative justice will increase that – making people understand the consequences for their actions,” Stilwell said.
Fillmore County Attorney Brett Corson said his office has been using restorative justice informally for years. With the creation of Three Rivers Restorative Justice and the signing of an MOU with the organization, Corson said it adds another tool for his office to use. The process, though, Corson said, is not for every case.
In the approximately year and half the Fillmore County Attorney’s Office has been working with Three Rivers, Corson said about six to eight cases, mostly property offenses, have gone through the process.
Corson said the process has been beneficial for both sides – those who have been harmed and those who caused the harm.
‘We’re all in this together’
Recently, about two dozen people took part in a multi-day restorative justice facilitator training, which introduced volunteers to the concept as well as prepared them to be facilitators for victim-offender conferences. It is through those conferences that a reparation plan is created.
Among them was Rochester resident Richard Gillis. Not new to the concept, Gillis attended a class at Assisi Heights on restorative justice. When a request went out to attendees to help establish a restorative justice presence in the region, Gillis joined the steering committee and then the board of directors. The class, he said, opened his eyes to the “injustice of our current justice system.”
Gillis, along with Rochester resident Susan Haskamp, were among about two dozen people who took part in the training in May. For Haskamp, the restorative justice process is the action piece of the phrase “we’re all in this together.”
“We're having really challenging conversations that are going to bring out really deep emotions, but through that we’re restoring individuals, and to me that this is a living example of how you actually build community,” Haskamp said. “People's voices are being heard. They're being seen. Everyone's been acknowledged and through that we could create relationships that may not have existed before.”