New law lets sexual and domestic violence cases go to community justice centers

by Grace Sherwood, Community News Service With the passage of Act 11 this past Statehouse session, legislators have cleared the way for survivors of sexual and domestic violence to take matters to a nearby community justice center. 

Before the act, those cases would have only been allowed to go through the traditional criminal justice system. In Vermont, sexual and domestic violence cases were the only cases outlawed from being referred to a community justice center. Act 11 updates the law governing the centers to give survivors an alternative to lengthy, taxing trials — or the chance to find closure by talking with the person who has harmed them.

Stakeholders say it’ll take about a year before there’s a process in place to make that happen, though. 

A community justice center is a place where victims can meet with the person who committed a crime against them after being referred by prosecutors, the court or other authorities. The victim has the opportunity to explain how the crime affected them and can then request action from the offender with the aim of mending the harm and preventing further offenses. Rather than the state punishing the perpetrator, the process allows the victim to advocate for what they believe will help them most. 

“Agencies were finding folks didn’t want to go through the court system — they just wanted folks to stop the abuser or take accountability for it,” said Rep. Karen Dolan, D-Essex Junction, lead sponsor of the legislation.

Survivors can go through the court system and take part in this kind of peacemaking process — called restorative justice, broadly. But “that conversation doesn’t always happen in court,” Dolan said. “That can happen now that this law is in effect.”

There are 17 centers across the state, in every county but two, though those missing counties are served by centers in neighboring ones.

The biggest piece of this legislation is giving victims a choice; the restorative justice method is there if they want to use it. A case can be taken to a community justice center at any point in time: instead of a criminal court case, along with a criminal court case or even years after a crime has been committed, Dolan said.

Act 11 says both parties must agree to bring it to a community justice center and commit to the restorative method. 

“Restorative justice isn’t restorative if it’s mandatory — if it’s being forced,” said Dolan. If one of the parties declines to participate, a community justice center can send a referred case back to the criminal system. Trying to take the restorative route with an uncooperative offender “causes more harm and trauma for the victim,” said Dolan. 

But centers are not yet taking referrals for sexual and domestic violence cases. The new statute requires each of the state’s centers to draft and agree to a memorandum of understanding with a local member of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Each may differ county to county, and the entire process is being overseen by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office. 

The agreements aim to make clear to everyone involved what exactly the given community justice center is able to do. The agreements must include protocols to ensure survivors’ safety, train staff and establish confidentiality standards, among other requirements.

“The idea was it’ll probably take about a year for these MOUs to take place — for the Attorney General’s Office to get set up to be this central oversight agency, for relationship building and for training of staff and volunteers and for fundraising,” said Rachel Jolly, director of the Burlington Community Justice Center.

Jolly said step one will be finding the money. “Right now we don’t have any money that is backing this concept even though it’s allowable because of Act 11,” she said.

Erin Jacobsen, assistant attorney general and co-director of the state office’s community justice division, said the legislation came with no appropriations. Until legislators decide to fund the work, Jacobsen said, leaders will look to federal grants from the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs.

Jacobsen said her office supported Act 11 (then H.41) from the start. 

“There’s a lot of research now about how victims express the difference between the traditional criminal justice approach and when they had a restorative option and how the restorative option just feels so much more like justice,” said Jacobsen. “We’re very interested in seeing how this shifts things in terms of helping people who are harming others stop harming people. Helping people understand what the harm was, how to stop that kind of behavior and also to get the resources they need so they can do that.”

Community News Service is a news service from the University of Vermont