Understanding The Harm

Restorative Justice Program In Place At Diversion Center

Posted: March 30, 2012 (reprinted from the Daily News Record)

Inmate Morgan Boyd, 28, (center) shakes hands on Tuesday with Sue Praill, director of the Fairfield Center’s restorative justice program, after Boyd and Robert Mitchem (left) discussed the success they have experienced with the pilot class during their time at the Harrisonburg Men’s Diversion Center. (Photos by Justin Falls)
Inmates Robert Mitchem, 48, (left) and Morgan Boyd, 28, discuss the success they have experienced with the Restorative Justice program at the Harrisonburg Men’s Diversion Center on Tuesday.
Sue Praill, director of the Fairfield Center’s restorative justice program, talks about the success of the program as Peter Van Acker, Harrisonburg Men’s Division Center superintendent, (right) and Sam Nickels listen in Van Acker’s office on Tuesday.

— Six months ago, Morgan Boyd entered the Harrisonburg Men’s Diversion Center in Linville looking for a chance to better his life.

In addition to the normal courses at the jail for nonviolent offenders, the 28-year-old Tazewell resident was among a dozen volunteers to participate in the first class of a pilot program on restorative justice led by the Fairfield Center in Harrisonburg.

During the six-week course, the men participate in a discussion aimed at teaching them to understand how their actions affect their victims.
“It shows you that for every action, there’s a reaction,” said Boyd, who graduated from the diversion center Thursday. “To see it and visualize it, it shows you how much you hurt people.”

Talking Together

The Fairfield Center, formerly known was the Community Mediation Center, was formed in 1982. The restorative justice program was launched in 1999.

Sue Praill, director of the restorative justice program, and Vesna Hart, a James Madison University graduate student, are in charge of the all-volunteer course at the diversion center.

“Our goal is to help the men understand the impact of their actions on the victims,” Praill said. “We want to help them develop empathy so they stop and think before acting in the future.”

By doing so, she said, the recidivism rates among those going through the program should be reduced. The recidivism rate — the percentage of people who reoffend after leaving jail — at the diversion center is about 35 percent, roughly half the national average, according to state statistics.

As part of the program, students participate in a two-hour session each week. During the sessions, the men sit in a circle, answer questions and discuss their feelings.

“Whatever questions we ask them, we’re willing to talk about ourselves,” Praill said. “We work with them as equals talking about difficult issues.”

Sharing Their Story

During the fourth week of the class, community volunteers describe the impact past crimes had on themselves and on their families.

Sam Nickels, a 51-year-old nonprofit fundraiser from Harrisonburg, spoke to the men about how a 14-year-old boy nearly destroyed his Maryland Avenue home in 2003 after he set fire to an anti-war sign posted on the home’s front porch.

Often, Nickels said, criminals don’t think how a crime will hurt the victim.

“They don’t think about you losing everything from your childhood that was in the attic,” he said.

Nickels, a restorative justice supporter, worked with the judicial system to fashion a sentence for the boy that avoided jail time.

Part of the judge’s sentencing included making the boy have dinner with Nickels’ family and work with crews renovating his home.

“We actually became friends with the family,” Nickels said. “That just doesn’t happen in our judicial system.”

Early Results

Diversion center staff members say they have seen a change in the men who have completed the restorative justice program.

Peter Van Acker, the diversion center’s superintendent, said the program gives the men a “punch.”

“We’re not talking about a punch in the mouth,” he said. “We’re talking about a psychological punch.”

Six months after an inmate’s release, program organizers plan to contact them to see how it has helped. They’ll use the feedback to create a database and plan to use the data to help secure grant funding for a larger program.

Robert Byrd, the diversion center’s senior probation officer, said the men say the program has changed their lives.

“Whether they follow through, time will tell,” Byrd said.

Boyd, who was being held at the diversion center on a felony possession of stolen goods conviction, said the program already has paid off in one way. The victim of his crime, he said, was someone close to him.

“It helped me patch up a relationship I’ve wanted to patch up for a long time,” Boyd said.

Contact Pete DeLea at 574-6278 or pdelea@dnronline.com