BARRE — Washington County is served by two community justice centers and one is moving toward a bigger focus on community while the other is focusing on restorative justice.
The Barre Community Justice Center serves Barre City, Barre Town, Plainfield, Marshfield, Cabot and Woodbury. It also serves Williamstown, Orange and Washington in Orange County.
The Montpelier Community Justice Center serves Montpelier, Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex, Northfield, Roxbury, Waitsfield, Warren, Waterbury and Worcester.
Both centers operate circles of support and accountability, called COSAs, where teams of volunteers work with offenders on reentry into the community. The goal is to repair relationships with victims and those impacted by the crime, and to provide support for the offender to help them avoid re-offending.
Both centers offer restorative justice panels, where volunteers meet with offenders, victims and those impacted by low-level offenses to offer support. It also gives the offender the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions and make things right.
But the two centers are structured differently. The Montpelier center is a department of the city and housed in City Hall. The Barre center is a nonprofit governed by a board with its own building on Keith Avenue.
They are also going in different directions.
Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault has publicly praised the work being done at the Barre center, which has the advantage of being close to the courthouse in Barre.
He said the center offers Starting Point, a program piloted by the Barre City police. It works by collaborating with local service organizations and churches to help those in need, be it finding a job, housing, food or other needs.
“The traditional role or conception of a justice center has evolved rapidly, especially here in Barre City,” Thibault said.
He said the Barre center has been looking at what role it can play in “the wellness and vitality of the community.”
Thibault said he’s been impressed by the center’s “more holistic” approach when providing for at-risk populations, be that victims of crime, offenders or those not involved at all in the criminal justice system.
“Increasingly, my office has looked in their direction for cases that may not rise to the level of a crime, but require some sort of intervention,” he said.
Thibault said the center is trying to head off problems or neighborhood disputes before they escalate into something more. He said that’s an important tool for reducing risk in the community.
Jeannie MacLeod, executive director of the Barre center, said she’s been working in this field for 15 years and what she’s seen is an increase in the use of drugs, homelessness and people struggling to get and keep housing.
“Life was much harder for them,” she said.
To help meet the needs of those in the community, she said the center has taken on a larger role of case management and helping people manage services along with restorative justice.
“It’s kind of like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you don’t have housing, you don’t have stability in your life, how can you think of making amends? When it’s all about where is my next meal coming from or where am I going to lay my head tonight, it’s hard to think of other people and how your actions affected others,” she said.
Thibault said his office doesn’t have as close a relationship with the Montpelier center. He said that’s likely because the center works more with the Department of Corrections on the back end of a criminal offense instead of working on more pre-trial services like in Barre.
“I’ve certainly seen the Barre justice center pivot towards a broader involvement in issues before they become problems while the Montpelier CJC has stayed in the more traditional lane receiving cases through the judicial system or holding grants for providing services in conjunction with the Department of Corrections,” he said.
Thibault said it’s been a pleasure working with MacLeod and the Barre center’s mission and goals are more aligned with his own.
Yvonne Byrd, director of the Montpelier center, said her center offers dispute resolution and provides a mediator in an effort to end conflicts before they become criminal. She said the center also offers facilitation services for the city’s Homelessness Task Force.
But she said the center is not looking to become and has never been a general social services agency. Byrd said the center’s foundation is built upon restorative justice, helping offenders and people impacted by crime heal and move on.
“What is central to our mission is the promotion and application of restorative principles and practices to the justice system and to all the other systems. That’s where we focus and I would say we’ve been pretty good at that and quite innovative,” she said.
She said she believes the most effective way to be proactive is to work with community organizations to help embed restorative practices into what they do. Byrd said an example of this is a group looking at working restorative practices into county schools.
Byrd said the center gets referrals from Thibault’s office and encourages the office to partner with her center.