Restorative Justice program seeks county funding

Sat, 09/24/2022 - 8:45am

    Restorative Justice Maine already has a foothold in two neighboring coastal counties and is looking to make a third in Lincoln. On Sept. 20, Director Kathy Durbin-Leighton and her team sought funding for the new Lincoln County Community Justice Hub. Since 2005, Restorative Justice Maine has diverted juvenile defendants out of the criminal justice program, in favor of a process stressing reform over punishment.

    In 2005, RJP began in Waldo County, and later spread to Knox. RJM plans on serving all four District 6 State Prosecutorial District Attorney counties by adding Lincoln this year, and Sagadahoc later.

    And Lincoln County may be a prime location to address juvenile crime. In 2019, a University of Southern Maine study showed juvenile interaction with law enforcement in Maine ranged from  a low of 3.1 per 100 in Oxford County, to a high of 5.9 in Hancock. Lincoln rated on the higher end at 5.3.  Durbin-Leighton told Lincoln County commissioners she believes restorative justice is a just resolution for victims, defendants and taxpayers. “It gives victims a voice in the process and increases offender insight into the offense,” she said. “The hope is it will reduce expensive detention time, and long-term repercussions of system involvement along with eliminating a criminal record for nonviolent adult offenders.”

    Durbin-Leighton reported RJM has a $106,089 annual budget. The program received $24,500 from Knox County for the past two years. Waldo County contributed $19,000 last year. RJM reported an-inhouse survey showing 94% of crime victims either “agreed” or “strongly agreed” in having a “positive experience” with restorative justice. Another showed 95% of victims, offenders, family members, mentors and community observers would recommend “restorative intervention” to others in a similar situation.

    In her presentation, Durbin-Leighton outlined the project’s goal. She explained restorative justice uses a comprehensive, community-based approach that facilitates conversations between the “harmed” and “harming parties.” Instead of incarceration, she said juvenile defendants receive counseling and are assigned a list of reparative acts. Juveniles receive support from a trained volunteer adult mentor while navigating the process. The program culminates in a “closing circle” that “ensures” the repair satisfies the person harmed and the community, according to Durbin-Leighton.

    RJM hired Drew Himmelstein in January as the program’s Lincoln County director and opened an office at Central Lincoln County YMCA. RJM requested $18,626 from Lincoln County commissioners to fund the new office. Himmelstein said the local program plans on providing services for 17-20 juveniles this year. Himmelstein has also conducted several “listening sessions” throughout the county and coordinates about 100 volunteers.  

    MRP plans on expanding its services to young adults ages, 18-24, this year. MRP’s advisory board recommended expanding the program to young adults to address substance abuse. “Sheriff Brackett is on the advisory board, and he reported about 40% of all law enforcement contact involves young adults and substance abuse. By targeting this group, we hope to reduce future (law enforcement) interactions and avoid further involvement in the system,” she said.

    Prior to making a contribution, commissioners requested MRP provide statistics showing how the program impacts Lincoln County and letters of support from the district attorney, sheriff’s department, local police departments and other interested parties.