Throughout the early 1990s, the fear of crime and the lack of confidence in their criminal justice system among citizens of Vermont created a reliance on incarceration as the main response to crime. Although public demand was satisfied, the corrections budget quadrupled, the burgeoning prisoner population was costing taxpayers $26,000 per inmate, and hard-core prisoners were released early due to prison overcrowding.
In 1990, the Vermont Department of Corrections embarked on a quest for a sustainable approach to corrections. Spurred by favorable ratings in citizen surveys regarding alternatives to incarceration, the Vermont Department of Corrections instituted the Reparative Probation program in 1995. This program steers adult criminals convicted of minor and non-violent offenses away from jail and toward a network of community boards. These boards, made up of ordinary citizens, are charged with developing creative sentences meant to satisfy and compensate the victims as they connect violators to victims and communities through formal apologies and varying forms of reparation.
This connection between communities, victims, and offenders aims for a restorative outcome and represents a major shift in the corrections system--from punishment to reintegration. To enter the program, petty criminals must first appear before a judge and plead guilty. Judges then suspend sentencing and allow the violator to go before the appropriate community board for sentencing, which could direct a vandal to repair what he has damaged or a drug dealer to build bunks in a homeless shelter. Violators who complete their community board sentence are then clear of the criminal justice system; those who fail to comply are headed back to court and, possibly, jail.
The Reparative Probation program is based on the theory that it makes more sense for minor criminals to repay victims and society than for society to punish them (and, all too frequently, turn them into harder-core criminals). Vermont's confidence in the approach seems justified. In the first two years of the program, 1,823 offenders have been diverted out of the court system, with only 168 failing to complete their sentences. Meanwhile the recidivism rate for those who completed their community service--8 percent--is comparable to that of traditional probation--11 percent.
While a number of other states have developed programs based on a restorative justice model, it is notable that Vermont is the only state that has established reparative boards in every county for use of every court in the State. The idea is becoming popular enough that it is spreading from the State's counties to local governments, which are now setting up boards to handle cases specific to their jurisdictions.
The Reparative Probation program is easing the burden on the State's jails and prisons. Between 1994 and 1997, the number of incarcerations was reduced by 60 percent. Violent offenders make up nearly three-quarters of the prison population, compared to half in 1995.
Greater citizen involvement in all aspects of government strengthens a community. Through market research conducted prior to implementing the Reparative Probation program, the Vermont Department of Corrections learned that citizens wanted to participate in the corrections process. Within the restorative justice framework of the Reparative Probation program, not only is the victim restored and the offender held accountable, but the public no longer feels powerless in dealing with crime.