Rebuilding trust

You needn’t be a Mensa member to recognize that our society has a crime and incarceration problem. Every week, this newspaper’s pages include reports of lawbreaking and court adjudications. The impact on society is enormous: the lost productivity of incarcerated individuals, the destruction or theft of property, the costs of keeping millions of inmates in our prisons and jails, the untold burdens suffered by crime victims. We all are affected — directly or indirectly.

Thus it is encouraging to observe that several Hancock County citizens have elected to work on an alternative process for handling young offenders.

The Hancock County Reparations Board is modeled on the 12-year-old Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast in Belfast. Board members Heather Staples from the District Attorney’s Office, Deputy John Bennoch from the Sheriff’s Office, plus citizens such as Anne Smallidge of Surry, are working to create successful outcomes from difficult situations both for troubled youth and those they have harmed in moments of bad judgment.

Who among us has never made a mistake, a wayward decision that affected us in our youth, or worse, for our whole lives? A moment’s indiscretion that puts anyone before the eyes of the law is too often a stigma that lasts a lifetime, a label that can destroy a young person’s future.

The Reparations Board wishes to follow the guidelines used by the Restorative Justice template, a philosophy practiced in many parts of the world. The intent is to focus on offender accountability as well as the impact on the victim and the community. The goal is to help heal both the offender and the party harmed so each can continue meaningful lives with a better understanding of how their actions affect the community at large.

The Reparations Board will not deal with violent crimes or drug offenses. It will be concerned mostly with property damage acts and minor offenses that might otherwise send an offender into “the system.” Eligible participants in the program — determined by the DA’s Office and police — receive a mentor who helps them through a process that includes meeting with the person or party harmed. The victim is an integral part of the process; he or she helps decide how to address the offense.

Over an 8- to 12-week program, the offender must fulfill the “circle” of contrition, apology, payback and/or community service on terms agreed to by the harmed party — in effect earning the trust of these fellow community members. The consequences of failure are the usual legal entanglements.

The costs of such a project are relatively minor compared to institutionalizing young offenders. Society is realizing that we must explore alternative corrective actions, just as we explore alternative learning opportunities for certain students in order that they may succeed. Unfortunately, mental illness and emotional issues play a large role in youth crime just as in many adult crimes. Generational or not, the costs of our current penal system beg for positive and expeditious improvements.

The Hancock County Reparations Board certainly is a step in the right direction. This is especially true in the wake of a newly reported review of Maine’s youth prison. The independent Center for Children’s Law and Policy found that staffing at Maine’s Long Creek Youth Development Center is too low and that the number of teens with mental illness is too high. That system is not working and may be making things worse. Sparing young offenders the mean conditions that scarcely seem to have improved since Charles Dickens wrote “Oliver Twist” is a noble goal. Rebuilding trust and restoring hope enriches not only kids in trouble, but also the communities in which they live.

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