Genesee Peacemakers

In Genesee County, New York,
the mission of the criminal justice system
is law, order, and compassion

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Justice (IC#38)
Originally published in Spring 1994 on page 35
Copyright (c)1994, 1997 by Context Institute

Imagine a justice system in which corrections officials view themselves as peacemakers and healers. Jail awaits unrepentant or dangerous offenders, but those who want to make a change find support in their sentencing and in their community. Victims are heard and counseled; their views are taken into account during sentencing; and they have the opportunity to confront their offenders face-to-face. And the community is involved in all aspects of the system, from attending to victims to counseling offenders.

This describes the justice system of a conservative rural county in upstate New York located between Rochester and Buffalo. For 10 years, Genesee Justice has built its corrections program on law, order, and peace.

The idea behind Genesee Justice is that the needs of victims, offenders, and the community for healing, justice, and reconciliation come first. The role of the state is to ensure fairness and an appropriate disposition of each case, according to Dennis Wittman, the coordinator of the Community Service and Victim Assistance programs and the visionary behind Genesee Justice.

RESPECT AND HEALING FOR VICTIMS …

For victims, the program aims to provide a sense of dignity and standing in the justice process and to promote healing. Volunteers and staff work with victims for months or years following a crime to protect the victims from further harm, to provide referrals to counseling and medical assistance, and to help with preparing compensation claims. Victims are kept apprised of the status of the case against the offender, and helped in the preparation of "victim impact statements," which the judge takes into account in the sentencing process.

Kim Davis, the mother of a boy who, at age four, was sodomized by her brother-in-law, is one of dozens of victims who was helped by Genesee Justice:

They made me feel as though we were an intregal part of the system – as though our opinion and how we felt was crucial to the judge’s decision.

That was nine years ago, and according to Kim, the healing is still going on. But the Victim Assistance Program helped get the healing started.

Had the District Attorney and the others in the justice system not attended to him sensitively, and had we not been trained to overcome the victim mentality – you’re damaged, you’re hurt, now crawl in a corner and hide – I don’t think the healing would have occurred as it did.

There was also help for the parents. After the trial, Kim and her husband had a chance to meet face-to-face with the offender under the supervision of a Genesee Justice official. Although they weren’t able to reconcile their differences with him, Kim says the meeting helped them gain a better understanding of each others’ positions.

It also helped that the counseling Kim and her son received were paid for by the perpetrator.

That was a key part to the sentence. Over an extended period of time, he had to pay the bills for our counseling and be reminded of his actions. He couldn’t just take care of it in court and walk away from it. That gave me a feeling of accountability.

In January 1989, David Whittier, a police officer, was seriously injured when a truck he’d stopped was rammed by a drunk driver. David died nine months later.

According to David’s widow, Connie Whittier, their daughter had been in the midst of planning her wedding at the time of the accident:

She postponed her wedding to give her father time to heal. But then, when he never got better, she had to go on and re-plan a wedding with the most important person in her life not there. It was very hard for her.

David had requested a face-to-face meeting with Brad (not his real name), the driver who had injured him. However, he died before such a meeting could be set.

About a year later, at Connie’s request Dennis Wittman set up a meeting between Brad and Connie and her children.

I wanted to be able to look him square in the eye and tell him exactly what I felt about him. I wanted him to know the things my husband had said. I wanted to hear him say he was sorry, and I wanted my kids to have the chance to say the things that they needed to say.

And I really wanted to get a look at him. I didn’t want to be on the street and say "hi" to someone and then find out later he’s the man who killed my husband.

For Connie, the healing began after her confrontation with Brad:

Victims rarely have a chance to confront the perpetrator and to say the things that are healing, no matter what they are: I hate you, I wish you were dead, I wish I’d never seen you, I wish you’d never been born.

To get that anger out and direct it at the person who caused all that anger was a healing process for me. At least I knew that he knew how we all felt. I think I was able to start to put my life back together after that.

The other reason Connie wanted to meet with Brad was to pass along a message David had planned to deliver in person to the man who had fatally injured him: David had planned to tell Brad that he forgave him.

I told Brad at the time that I thought David was a bigger person then me. He had the ability and the love and compassion to forgive this man who did this horrible thing to him, and I didn’t. I wanted Brad to know what a great person he’d killed.

According to Dennis, one out of six victims who are part of the Genesee Justice system request meetings with their offender. The victims often have questions that can’t be answered without meeting the offender: "Why were you doing this?" "Were you stalking us?" Knowing some of these answers can help victims restore their sense of order and safety, and help them get on with their lives.

"It’s like having an open wound; if you fail to attend to it, gangrene sets in and the injuries worsen instead of getting better," Dennis says. "We attend to the victim and try to help them heal."

The victims’ participation in sentencing also adds to the wisdom of the system, according to Dennis. "We’ve seen many criminal cases, even violent ones, in which victim-directed sentencing turns out to be community-based sentencing. Society’s myth is that all victims want pure punishment. Genesee Justice has proven that when they’re attended to, victims want safety and accountability and responsibility from the offender, not vengeance."

FOR OFFENDERS: A CHANCE TO MAKE AMENDS

The meeting with the victim helps offenders recognize the human impact of their crime in a way that’s rarely possible within the formal confines of a courtroom. It also gives the offenders a chance to seek forgiveness. But it’s not easy for an offender to sit next to his or her victim, according to Dennis.

The Genesee County philosophy is that the offender’s first obligation is to make amends with the victim and the community. The function of the justice system should be to act as mediator between the parties most affected and ultimately to ensure that the case is fairly resolved.

When the offender shows a strong interest in making amends, he or she is given the opportunity to make restitution and to be reaccepted into the community.

A tightly monitored plan is prepared and presented to the victim, district attorney, and defense lawyer. The plan is customized for each offender depending on the nature of the offense, the victim’s recommendations, input by interested members of the community, and other factors. If the offender follows the plan, charges may be reduced or dropped; if the offender fails to follow the plan, the case will revert to normal court proceedings.

Mark Vincent (not his real name) was arrested for possession of a large quantity of LSD and faced a sentence of 25 years to life under New York state law. His case was diverted for 21 months.

During the time the legal prosecution was on hold, Mark attended both in-patient and out-patient drug treatment programs, went back to school, and complied with a 9 p.m. curfew.

He also had to meet with members of his family and community where, according to Dennis, he heard loud and clear what the community felt about drug dealing.

At the end of the 21-month period, his charges were reduced, and he was sentenced to one to three years in prison. He ended up serving 8 months in jail, including a stint at a shock boot camp. Instead of spending 25 years or more in prison, at a cost to taxpayers of more than half a million dollars, Mark is now completing his education and looking forward to a career as a physical therapist.

I’m closer to my family now. This experience made me see what I was doing to them; it gave me a chance to prove that I could straighten myself out.

FOR THE COMMUNITY: EMPOWERMENT

Genesee Justice views crimes as damaging not just to the direct victim and the victim’s family, but to the community as a whole. So community service and reparations play a central role in the Genesee Justice system. As part of his sentence, a DWI offender paid $200 to Mothers Against Drunk Driving; a school burglar paid $250 in reparations to a fifth grade class.

Community service has the added benefit of helping an offender to restore his or her standing in the community. Offenders have built or repaired public facilities, prepared meals for homeless people, cut wood for a home energy assistance program, and done accounting for the YMCA.

Between 1981, when this new approach to the justice system was launched, and 1993, the community received 186,410 hours of work from 2,600 offenders. The county also saved $50 for every day that an offender was not incarcerated. So the total benefit to the county during this period resulting from community service was equivalent to $2.15 million.

Many of the offenders report feeling better about themselves and their ability to make a contribution as a result of their community service work. They learn new skills and learn how to get along with other people.

Dennis emphasizes that community service is not a way of letting offenders off easily. The work is often strenuous, and the hours can be long.

The Genesee Justice system depends on members of the community for more than just providing community service opportunities. They are called on to participate in victim/offender reconciliation conferences, particularly when damage to the community is most evident.

This spring, a dozen town officials confronted a former deputy clerk who had embezzeled $46,000 from the town. Her former co-workers wanted to know why she had committed the crime, what she did with the money, and what she was planning to do to turn her life around. The clerk has since returned the money, plus several thousand dollars spent investigating her wrong doing. What could have been a three-to-seven year prison sentence has been dropped to 60 days in the local jail; her community sponsor has promised to continue to meet with her there.

Community members are involved at every stage of the justice process. They may be called upon to help determine whether an offender is a good candidate for diversion and a community-based sentence, and to provide support to crime victims.

Community members also volunteer as community sponsors for offenders who are trying to make amends. Reverend Wilmer Simmons, a chaplain for the Hospice program in Genesee County, meets weekly, at a restaurant or other neutral place, with an offender assigned by Genesee Justice.

Sometimes for these young people, this is the first time anyone has trusted them, the first time they could do anything right. We treat them as an equal; we buy them a cup of coffee and listen to their side of the story.

Wilmer Simmons sees his job as helping offenders to rejoin the community as useful people.

We counsel them on their problems and try to boost their self-esteem and tell them they’re good at something.

Some of them wonder why someone is taking this much interest in them; why people are offering to sit down at a restaurant or at church or a library to talk to them, Dennis says. "We hope offenders will see the good in the person who has chosen to spend time with them and will be influenced by their sponsor’s values and standards," he says.

BUILDING SUPPORT

After more than 10 years, the Genesee Justice system has widespread community support. It took some time to build that support because involving the community in so many aspects of the justice system was a radical departure from the norm, Dennis says.

But now there are 107 nonprofit agencies involved, 80 volunteer community sponsors – like Wilmer Simmons – who work weekly with offenders, and 90 volunteers who work with crime victims. There is a real sense of community ownership of the process, Dennis says.

In addition, the county’s justice officials are fully behind the approach. Former Sheriff W. Douglas Call writes:

Incarceration should be used as a last resort, only after community obligations and restrictions have failed.

Public protection is fostered by enforced community-based sanctions, [rather than] abrupt, unrestricted release from jail and all that imposes upon the general public.

The Genesee Justice system has given judges "the creative sentencing options they have been looking for," writes Batavia Town Justice James B. Neider.

Sentences can now be tailor-made instead of one or two sentences fit all. Judges can now get valuable input from the victims of crimes concerning their viewpoint.

Often as judges, we make assumptions about how a victim feels, and just as often we are wrong. Now we no longer have to guess. We can get this first-hand information before sentencing.

Community and justice system support has been further galvanized by the tremendous cost savings (seeThe Economics of Restorative Justice following this article) and by the stellar record of those participating in the program. Only 6 percent of those who have received community-based sentences have either failed to complete their sentence or been re-arrested, according to Dennis.

CATCHING ON

Other jurisdictions are beginning to see that this approach works. The states of Delaware and Texas are among those who have sought out Genesee Justice for ideas and help.

David Doefler, from the Texas Victims Assistance Program, visited Genesee County earlier this year. The state of Texas is "going broke paying for the world’s greatest prison-building initiative," he said.

But in Genesee County "an official part of the criminal justice system is emphasizing healing and reconciliation."

I was extremely impressed by both the expression and follow through of compassion, and by the goal of attaining healing of all those impacted by violent crime – victims and offenders.

My goal is to replicate Genesee Justice in every county in Texas.

With over 10 years of success behind it, the Genesee Justice model of compassion for victim, offender, and community is starting to take hold.


The Economics Of Restorative Justice

by Sarah van Gelder

The cost savings of community-based sentences are clear. Dennis Wittman estimates it has cost the county an average of $350 per case that has been handled in the diversion program. A majority of those cases otherwise would have resulted in incarceration, at a cost of between $14,000 and $25,000 per year.

Just one drug possession case, such as Mark Vincent’s (described in the preceding article) would likely have cost $625,000 or more in prison costs, had his case not been diverted.

Because it has been consistently diverting selected cases to community-based sentences, the Genesee County jail has had room to spare for the past 52 months. New York state prisons, which are at 115 percent of capacity, and the federal corrections system are sending inmates to Genesee. Housing these inmates brought $630,000 into county coffers in 1993 alone.

The state of New York is catching on to the potential cost savings. The state is considering appropriating $5 million in its 1994-1995 budget to provide financial incentives that would encourage counties to divert up to a total of 500 cases through programs similar to Genesee County’s. There are 62 counties in New York, so if each county diverted just eight or nine cases per year, New York state could save the $100 million to $200 million it would otherwise have to spend to build a new prison.

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