Derek Miodownik, restorative systems administrator for the Vermont Department of Corrections, talks about the state’s innovative experiments
in community and restorative justice, including Citizen Reparative Boards, which give panels of community members
a role in working with misdemeanor offenders, and Circles of Support and Accountability, which link community members
with parolees convicted of serious crimes.
ROBERT V. WOLF:
Hi. This is Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation, and welcome to another New Thinking
podcast. Today I’m speaking with Derek Miodownik who is the restorative systems administrator for the Vermont Department
DEREK MIODOWNIK: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Absolutely. Vermont has quite a reputation for innovative thinking in the area of corrections. And so, I was wondering
if you could tell me a little bit about the philosophy that guides you and about some of the interesting things that
you’ve been working on.
MIODOWNIK: Absolutely. Yeah. I think Vermont’s
a state that’s had to play to its strengths, and one of our strengths is our relatively small size that we still
have a real sense of community and town, and active citizen participation in all sorts of civic life.
specific to corrections, one of the ways that’s becomes expressed for years now has been through citizen reparative
boards that have been operating since at least ’95, I think, here in Vermont, where individuals who’ve been convicted
of misdemeanors have for a long time now been required to appear before a volunteer citizen board. So, of course,
you’re talking about a restorative justice approach and philosophy that has really taken roots here in Vermont.
we have, over the past several years, begun to apply that not only on the low level of the offense scale but also
on to the more severe cases, and specifically, the re-entry process.
So you started with the reparative boards in Vermont, which focused on misdemeanor offenses. Is that correct?
That’s right. I’d say that’s where, as a state, we kind of cut our teeth.
And how widespread are they now? MIODOWNIK: We’ve got 76 individual community reparative boards.
What does that consist of? These are volunteers who do what with the offender?
Well, it’s really predicated on the notion that the person is showing up and at the very least saying
“Yes, I did it.” So they’re not fact finding. The conversation begins from the perspective of “How do you think other
people were harmed?” And it’s done not in a didactic way but I would say in an educational and informative and
a very personal way. And then, “What do you think you have to offer in the way of repairs?”
if they’re individual victims who’ve chose to participate in this process, first and foremost, what do they want,
what are their needs?
WOLF: Give me some examples of the kinds of
the kinds of misdemeanors and then the kinds of responses that panels come up with.
So yeah, again, we’re talking primarily about low-level offenses. That can include shoplifting, DUIs.
WOLF: And what would the sanctions perhaps be?
An example might be—I know there is a guy who had shoplifted from a video store. This is a guy struggling to keep
his store going. He came to the board and expressed just that, that this isn’t just a business to him, but that it’s
a business that’s hard for him to run, that he built at a time when that medium, frankly, was a lot more popular,
that he’s got children.
So all of a sudden, when you have somebody removing the barricades of
their life and saying “Hey, your decision to take six DVDs? Let me tell you about my 16-year-old daughter and let
me tell you about my 18-year-old that I sent to college.” And you know, all of a sudden, in a way a gift is being
offered, a gift of connection.
You know, in this case, ultimately, the guy who ran the store,
he needed some help. He needed some help at home. He was working a lot. He had injured his back, which prevented
him from mowing his lawn.
And you know, an agreement was reached that this guy would work off
his obligation through, you know, through a prescribed number of hours, just showing up, mowing this guy’s lawn.
In terms of a happy ending on this one, a fairy tale ending, this guy ended up getting a job working at H—- Video
in South Burlington, Vermont.
WOLF: And H—- Video was the victim?
The victim owned that store?
MIODOWNIK: That’s right. That’s right.
WOLF: Well, it is a happy ending because I was going to say that
it sounds like a lot of effort on all parts to resolve something that sounds like a rather minor offense.
You know, on one hand, there is definitely an outlay of effort. But on the other hand, the absence of that helps
to contribute to some pretty larger-scale matters that we see play out time and again with folks who don’t respond
very constructively to low-level misdemeanor sanctions, and ultimately, either continue at the same level of severity
or sometimes ultimately escalate.
So from a prevention perspective, it’s effort and the time
well spent, and it’s primarily driven by volunteers who are doing that because, again, they live in that town, and
it’s not academic to them.
WOLF: We’ve been talking about the response
to misdemeanor –
MIODOWNIK: That’s right.
…offenses and the Department of Corrections of Vermont is also addressing re-entry issues, offenders who have committed
more serious crimes who are right now returning to the community. You’ve developed a program there that’s also rather
creative and involves the community as well. So maybe you can tell me a little bit about that.
We responded in 2002 to what was called the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative. This was a federal initiative
to provide states with money specifically to enhance or promote their best thinking around offender re-entry. And
to us, it became a natural extension to build upon this culture of restorative justice, of relational justice, if
you will, and apply that where frankly the stakes are higher.
So we have, over time, created
an infrastructure of what we call community justice centers. And these are actually the places where many of the
volunteers that I mentioned on these reparative boards are organized and trained. So basically, we sub-granted the
first round of money to justice centers to do a design phase.
So did you end up with different programs all across the state?
Well originally, there was some variation. Yeah. And to some degree, there’s still some. One community adopted a
mentoring approach. But several other locations began to get excited about a model that was coming out of Toronto
COSA stands for Circle of Support and Accountability. And basically, some folks
up in Toronto began working with sex offenders who had maxed their sentences and were being released with no support
whatsoever or no accountability for that matter either. And so, the COSA model is rooted in the notion of “no more
victims”. And the COSA methodology is rooted in a blending of accountability and support.
this goes back to some pretty basic restorative principles that say if you provide a lot of support for somebody,
i.e., encouragement, positivity, but accountability so direct limit setting, having to answer for, you know, in this
case your whereabouts or your behaviors. Then you’re into an area that has the greatest potential for effecting positive
WOLF: So how has it played in Vermont? How many of these
teams, these COSA teams do you have, and are they, in fact, working with sex offenders?
We didn’t restrict them just to sex offenders although we definitely worked with many sex offenders.
But we took a look at just what was the level of connectivity that these folks have when they’re coming back
to a place of very few connections. That was the main kind of driver of whether or not it made sense to invest that
type of volunteer resource.
Basically, about 50 individuals who came out during 2005 through
2007 were involved for at least a year. Out of that original 50 most, over at least a year period, were very successful.
Guys who had come in and out many times before were staying out far longer than they ever had.
Those who were re-incarcerated were re-incarcerated for really harm reductions behaviors and I actually think that
this is one of the best things that COSA is doing, frankly. They preempt the more severe offending behavior by virtue
of their knowledge and relationship to the offender so that if the guy has a condition that he can’t drink but goes
out and violates, he may tell his COSA “I went out, you know, I had beers last night.” Or they may start asking him
questions that yield that information. And that’s actionable information.
There is no secret
kept between the “core member,” who’s the offender, if you will, and the volunteer. So people have been but back
in jail but not because they went out and reoffended, but rather because they began to engage in the behaviors that
had, at another point, may have very well led to a re-offense. And that’s how you create no more victims.
Do the COSAs still exist now that the grant money has long expired?
Well, yes, several of the justice centers had very robust programs and coordinators that were hired, who ultimately
were not able to stay on. Several other programs were still develop COSAs for one or two offenders who they just
feel it’s the right thing to do, and even though they’re not being supplementally resourced for it, they, frankly,
have the knowhow and the volunteer base to do it.
WOLF: Well, let
me ask you. It seems to me one of the big advantages of the program is that you have volunteers who are doing a lot
of the work.
So where’s the cost? I mean why can’t – why isn’t this more easy to replicate or sustain beyond an initial startup
MIODOWNIK: What we found is that you really do ideally
need a singular coordinator who really could work effectively between the volunteer world and the corrections world.
WOLF: So the cost is the staff person who’s there to support the
COSA, the volunteers who are making up this team of support and accountability.
Yup. And you know, for the cost of what it takes to incarcerate one person a year, that’s what we would actually
get, you know, frankly, that $50,000 will get us a full-time coordinator, who can really kind of tread both of these
waters very effectively.
WOLF: Right. And hopefully, prevent, who
knows how many countless repeat crimes.
MIODOWNIK: Oh, yeah. The
math is a no-brainer when you do it. Yup.
WOLF: So give me a sense.
I mean we sort of ran out of time, but I would like to get a very quick sense of what it is like for a volunteer
who’s participating on a COSA team. I mean here’s someone who’s actually volunteering to develop a relationship with
someone who, for instance, might have sexually abused a child.
WOLF: What does that consist of? I mean is it like “Come on
over to my house for dinner?” Or is it just, “I’ll drop by once a month with a checklist and make sure that you are
following a curfew or thus and such?” I mean how intimate do they get and what is the relationship like?
You know, I think like in any relationship, Rob, it progresses and they probably set the typical boundaries.
of the strengths of this model is the strong connection back to corrections and back to the probation or parole officer.
So a volunteer might think “hey, you know, I’ve been working with John for eight months. You know, my wife and I
would like to have him over for dinner.” Again, going back to the coordinator—they’d probably run that through the
coordinator. The coordinator will call the probation officer and say “what do you think of that?”
you know, we talked about sex offenders a little bit before. Sex offenders, you know, broad topic. To begin with,
there’s lots of typologies and a lot of MOs, if you will. So depending on a specific offender, something like “come
on over for dinner” may be a no-go because, yeah, you know, sometimes there’s somebody who lives in that house
that fits the original victim profile or it may not be a problem at all.
But basically, what’s
happening is that a personal relationship is being developed through reciprocity. Our volunteers have had tremendous,
tremendous experiences. I mean I think it’s a testament to the strength of the volunteers that several are still
doing this, like I said, even though we haven’t had a full-time coordinator so that the directors themselves have
taken over that coordination responsibility in some cases. But people tend to really – people who signed up for it
get a lot out of it.
WOLF: And just to be clear, I mean we’re talking
about teams here, so people aren’t being asked to have a one-on-one relationship with people. There’s a team of people,
of volunteers working together with one offender.
Usually, a COSA consists of at least three and sometimes about three to five individuals. Now sometimes within that
structure, maybe just one of them will get together with that core member for coffee or something like that. But
the primary structure is that they all get together as a group.
And they start that before the
person comes out ideally. That’s no small detail, too. There’s also just some public information too that we do,
Rob, which is the fact that people have to come out. And you know, like it or not, over 92 percent of people, I think,
nationally who are in prison are coming out of those prisons, right? So you can only be an ostrich for so long before
one of these folks is going to be your neighbor.
And at that point, are you better off knowing
them and having them care about what you think? The answer, you know, ultimately for many people in Vermont is yes.
WOLF: And Derek, if people want to find out more about what you’re
doing in Vermont, where can they go?
MIODOWNIK: Go on to the Vermont
Department of Corrections website, doc.vermont.gov. Now that doesn’t have any www in front of it. It’s just http
or double backslash.
WOLF: Okay. Well, thanks so much, Derek. I
appreciate your taking the time to talk to me.
MIODOWNIK: It’s my
pleasure. Thank you very much, Rob.
WOLF: I have been speaking with
Derek Miodownik who is the restorative systems administrator for the Vermont Department of Corrections. I am Rob
Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation, www.courtinnovation.org.