Can Justice Heal?

Attica State Prison, the maximum-security facility best known for the 1971 riots in which 32 inmates and 10 hostages were killed, sits in upstate New York. Just 10 miles north is Genesee County, a conservative community that shares Attica’s rural setting but offers a contrasting way of administering justice: a restorative approach that not only involves the offender and the victim, but the greater community as well.

Working out of the Genesee County Sheriff’s Department, the Genesee Justice program examines whether justice can be tough and compassionate at the same time. Started in 1981, it is one of the first restorative justice projects to deal with serious crime as well as misdemeanors. Genesee Justice bases its work on a series of principles that hold the offender accountable while ministering to the victim and the community with hopes, ultimately, for reconciliation and healing.

Offenders are not offered leniency, but are provided with a chance to make amends for their crimes and restore their standing in the community. Reparations can rebuild broken trust while benefiting community organizations. People charged with driving while intoxicated have made monetary reparations to Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the American Cancer Society. Community service requirements have produced a restored town hall, two additional rooms on the Baptist church, and workers to serve at area homeless shelters. For many offenders, this interaction is the first real opportunity they’ve had to contribute to their community.

These components have grown into a full-scale Pre-Sentence Diversion track. With the affirmation and cooperation of the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, victim, community, and family members, felony offenders in carefully screened cases who have shown remorse are offered a comprehensive plan to get their lives back together under strict supervision. The diversion period usually runs from six months to a year, during which a defendant must fulfill eight to 14 conditions. These focus on offender accountability, treatment, community involvement, and victim atonement. Based on performance, the court may decide whether the defendant should remain in the community or be incarcerated.

BECAUSE VICTIMS OF crime often become victims of the justice system, reaching out with a commitment to stand with them through the legal process is an integral part of Genesee’s balanced program. Advocates make initial contact soon after the crime, with the highest priority on making the victim feel safe. They provide ongoing explanations of the legal system and a court accompaniment for hearings and meetings. Support groups and prayer services for healing attempt to draw the focus on the human dimension in attending to the injured party. Restoring faith and trust in the justice system for the victim is as important as holding the perpetrator accountable for his or her actions.

Perhaps most difficult, yet vital to the spirit of the program, are reconciliation meetings between victim and offender. Victims give voice to the anger, fear, anxiety, and pain they feel, while offenders must absorb these responses and acknowledge their responsibility. And then offenders may apologize to the person they injured face to face, usually showing the impact of their crime on themselves.

Connie Whittier’s husband, David, a police officer, was pinned by a drunk driver between his patrol car and an abandoned vehicle in 1989. He died nine months later. David wanted to tell the driver, John Flugel, that he was forgiven and asked his wife to do that for him. But Connie wanted to tell Flugel things of her own: how she hated him, how he had ruined her life. She did that in a two-hour meeting, while Flugel sat and listened.

Her rage shifted after this meeting. "I’m angry at him for what he did....I hate that he took my husband’s life. But I know now, after meeting with him, that John is always going to live with that. That he killed another man."

Healing begins. A belief in grace, transformation, and the peaceful resolution to violence—that’s the motivation for Genesee Justice.

KIMBERLY BURGE is a free-lance writer living in Washington, D.C. For more information on Genesee Justice, contact Community Service/Victim Assistance Program, Genesee County Sheriff’s Department, County Building No. 1, Batavia, NY 14020; (716) 344-2550, ext. 226.

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