ELLSWORTH — The Hancock County restorative justice program for youths is expanding to include adults who have been charged with thefts, according to Leslie Ross, Hancock County case coordinator, and District Attorney Matt Foster.
The program brings victims, offenders and affected community members together.
“There are so many benefits to these programs in that they allow victims to take an active part in a process that allows them to give voice to how this has harmed them and allows them to have a say in how to repair the harm done,” Ross said. “As an alternative to jail, it offers the offender the opportunity to take ownership and responsibility for their actions, a chance to follow through on repairing the harm while staying connected to their community.”
“It also allows the offender a better opportunity to gain insight into the harm caused by their actions, encouraging ownership and reducing the likelihood of reoffending,” said Ross.
A local restorative justice program for youths started in 2016 as the Hancock County Community Reparations Board but the name was changed last year to Down East Restorative Justice, she said.
Now, adults who have been charged with theft may participate as well if the victim agrees, said Foster.
“If a victim does not want to participate, we won’t use the program,” Foster said. “If the defendant doesn’t want to participate, we can’t use the program. If the program is used, it is not an alternative to the court system, it is used in conjunction with it. It would basically be a condition of a deferred disposition or it would be completed while the case is informally continued by the court to await the outcome of the process.”
The program receives funding from Hancock County’s Community Benefit Fund, which is revenue derived from wind farm developments. It also
receives funding from the Maine Department of Corrections via Restorative Justice Maine.
Foster is optimistic.
“I am hoping that by utilizing this program that we can help both victims and defendants who agree to participate,” he said. “The research shows that RJ [restorative justice] programs reduce recidivism for offenders and give victims a better understanding of the process and a better sense of closure when the process is completed.”
“Since we will be utilizing the program as part of the court process instead of outside of the court process, there is really no downside for the state in terms of prosecution,” Foster said. “It is simply another tool that we can use to try to solve the problem of criminal behavior rather than just seeking a fine or jail. I am hopeful that this program will be beneficial for the people of Hancock County. The program is run by a not-for-profit organization and so there is no cost to the taxpayers of Hancock County for our participation in appropriate cases.”
“We have been using the program for juveniles in Hancock County for the past several years with the help of Restorative Justice Project Midcoast and it seems to work really well,” the prosecutor said.
The restorative justice program for youths works outside of the court system in an informal setting with the juvenile community corrections officer, who takes the lead in an effort to divert young people before they become involved in the juvenile criminal justice system.
The adult program will work in conjunction with the court system.
Only nonviolent felonies that include property crimes will be included in the program such as a shoplifting or theft case that is a felony due to prior convictions. This program won’t be used for violent crimes against people.