By Dennis Maloney

Photo courtesy of author.

What if, instead of going through the tried and true way of dealing with a criminal offender, there was a more effective, more grass-roots approach? Instead of going through a lengthy trial process, at which the offender may or may not be convicted, the community could work with and through a special agency organized to mediate between criminal and victim. Dennis Maloney (left), director of Community Justice,a local government organization that works closely with NGOs to emphasize crime prevention and collaboration, describes the "community justice" system that is working in Deschutes County, Oregon.

Consider the following circumstance. After working late one evening, you catch the last bus. Departing the bus at your regular stop you begin your walk toward home. As you approach your home, you notice a troubling situation. You hear a group of children crying. They are standing over a woman lying on the sidewalk. As you rush to the scene, you notice what appears to be a male figure slipping away into the shadows toward the alleyway. What do you do?

I have asked this question to thousands of citizens in dozens of U.S. states. The response is consistent. First, you attend to the woman, check her vital signs and determine the nature of her injury. Second, you observe the children to find out if they too have suffered an attack. Third, you summon a neighbor to call the appropriate number for emergency assistance and to dispatch the police to locate and arrest the offender. This sequence: attending to the crime victim, taking the pulse of the surrounding community, and then dealing with the offender appears to be an American protocol when responding to crime.

Flaws in the System

If this is, in fact, the series of actions that are taken at the moment the crime occurs, why does the U.S. criminal justice system appear to adhere to virtually a reverse protocol? In the United States, we appoint government financed legal services for the offender, provide counseling and therapeutic interventions and even upon incarceration, provide extensive educational and vocational services. All the while, crime victims languish to deal with their trauma through their own means. Thus, the American public has come to conclude that the criminal justice system has become so offender-focused that, in essence, we have become offender advocates. Many even perceive us to be offender advocates at the expense of victim and community needs. This paradox will never and should never be acceptable.

The U.S. system has depended on incarceration as the preferred and, in many cases, the only means to hold offenders accountable for their behavior. There is growing evidence that we can more deeply impress upon the offender the personalized effects of their behavior by involving the victim throughout the proceedings. This, in turn, can actually cause a much deeper sense of offender accountability.

Let us first acknowledge that there is an absolute place for jails to control dangerous offenders during pre-trial deliberation and subsequently to punish those offenders for their wanton acts. These offenders require secure prisons for lengthy periods of time. But we also need to remember that a vast amount of victimization involves property loss at the hands of offenders with no demonstrated tendency toward violence. These crimes include such acts as theft, burglary, vandalism and passing bad checks. These crimes account for up to 90 percent of all crimes committed in the United States. In these cases, it may be far more satisfactory and certainly less costly to hold the offender directly accountable to the victim and the community.

This can be accomplished by allowing the victim to determine an appropriate level of restitution, identify a meaningful amount of community work service, and with the aid of a trained mediator, arrange for the victim to express face to face to the offender the trauma suffered as a result of the crime.

In fact, if the criminal justice system reserved prison space for dangerous person-to-person offenders and those chronic, unstoppable property offenders, we could take the savings and provide extensive and much needed treatment service for victims. We could also finance viable crime prevention strategies, the very best way to prevent victimization.

This brings us to a third element of the U.S. criminal justice system: crime prevention. We have a system with the most comprehensive information available about the places, times, frequency and patterns of criminal activity. Yet if we look at resources dedicated to preventing crime, we find there is great room for improvement. Just as the system, in large part, traditionally pays little attention to crime victims, so has it paid too little attention to a genuine crime prevention discussion. The system primarily manages the movement of offenders, often relying on very expensive responses. This approach, some feel, is short-sighted.

Community Justice

In Deschutes County, Oregon, and a handful of other jurisdictions across the United States, a group of judicial officials has teamed up with local elected officials, legislative representatives and private citizens to acknowledge the system's shortfalls, and more importantly, to build a better system of criminal justice -- a system we've come to identify as "community justice."

Within a community justice framework, the victim is regarded as the paramount "customer" of the justice system, offenders are held accountable in constructive and meaningful ways, and crime prevention is viewed as a high priority. Citizen participation in attending to victim needs, determining priorities, mediating restitution requirements and supervising community work service projects is central in a community justice approach. Justice system officials are careful to state that this shift can occur while remaining steadfast to due process requirements.

Deschutes County has taken several steps to demonstrate they are serious about their new vision for the justice system. Following a series of meetings convened by Presiding Circuit Court Judge Stephen Tiktin regarding the need for the local justice system to elevate victim services and crime prevention, the county emerged with an official resolution to respond to the group's leadership. This resolution in turn spurred a series of actions that have quickly moved the system toward a community justice model.

Here are some examples of ideas that have been implemented since adoption of the resolution:

To Better Serve Victims

The Deschutes County District Attorney's Office has developed a full complement of victim services. The department attends to victims' needs from the time a crime is reported to the time the last restitution payment is made. This victim's assistance program is patterned after U.S. hospital emergency "coding." Person-to-person crimes are regarded as code blue, and the program will assure that a victim has a supportive volunteer by his/her side within minutes of a call. Lesser crimes are responded to within hours, and victims suffering minor crimes are contacted within a couple of days following the report. Victims also receive other services, such as trauma counseling, temporary housing if required, legal information and assistance with recording losses. The message is clear to crime victims: "You are an upstanding member of our community; you have been wronged, and it is our job to do everything we can to make certain you are restored to the highest degree possible. We will stand by your side until a sense of safety returns."

The Deschutes Circuit Court has prompted a complete range of opportunities for victims to be directly involved in the justice process. The court has placed a particularly high priority on victim-offender mediation services. In this approach, victims can choose to meet face to face with offenders to explain the human consequences of their losses, state their need for recovery of financial losses and determine appropriate community service requirements. The session is facilitated by a highly trained volunteer. The newly formed Department of Community Justice coordinates the program for the court. Early results of this approach are very encouraging. Victims report a much higher level of satisfaction with mediation than with traditional judicial processes. And the agreements reached are far more durable than standard orders of probation. Offenders pay restitution at a much higher rate, approaching 90 percent compared with a national probation average of just 33 percent.

The Community Justice Department is converting positions that once focused on offender counseling to postions that emphasize victim support and counseling. The old system asked of each law enforcement referral -- "What is the status of the offender? What are his/her needs? What services are required to change his/her behavior." The new system asks -- "What is the situation of the victim? What is the degree of his/her hardship? What does the offender need to do to repay the victim?"

The Department continues to manage and supervise the offender's behavior. But the primary context of the supervision has to do with the offender's responsibility to restore the victim and pay the restitution. Accountability, not counseling, is the highest priority of the offender's supervision.

Managing Property Offenders More Creatively

The business community in Deschutes County has joined forces with the Department of Community Justice to form what has become known as the Merchant Accountability Board. The board was developed for several reasons:

  • Shoplifting, retail theft and bad checks were taking a terrible toll on area merchants, in some cases threatening the viability of some small businesses.

  • The district attorney's office was reaching a point where it could barely afford to prosecute the flood of cases, as each prosecution was costing $600-$900 from the department's budget for attorney fees and other staff costs. This cost was the same whether the theft was of a large sum of money or a small one.

  • Merchants, while supportive of the county's Victim Offender Mediation Program, could not afford to take the time to go through mediation on every case.

As a result of these circumstances, the merchants put together a program in which one merchant would serve as the surrogate victim for a dozen or so cases and determine an appropriate level of restitution. In this way, the case is handled without the need for costly prosecution, the merchant-victim gets an opportunity to impress upon shoplifters and petty thieves the gravity of their effect on a small business family, and the merchants receive their restitution more quickly, and at a higher rate, than through conventional judicial processes.

Building More Viable Communities

One of the featured changes that has occurred with the Department's commitment to community justice is now to view the community service sentence as a resource to build more viable communities. Community work service has traditionally been used primarily as a punitive measure for offenders. In Deschutes County, under the umbrella of the community justice philosophy, work service is seen as a means to restore victims and the community.

Within this context, the Department has worked diligently with community nonprofit agencies to tackle an array of innovative projects. These include:

  • partnering with a local Rotary Club to help construct a child abuse center,

  • joining forces with a local anti-poverty agency to help raise money for a 70-unit transitional housing shelter,

  • working to construct a community park in honor of a former community educator, and

  • developing a formal relationship with Habitat for Humanity, where offenders have constructed homes, under the auspices of that organization.

With this approach, the community gains tangible benefits from the Department, and offenders begin to build a bond with the community, thereby reducing the likelihood of vandalism on their part. The community has demonstrated overwhelming support for this approach.

Prevention Strategies

This issue may well have stirred the county's most creative thinking. In analyzing the state's juvenile corrections system, the county determined that Oregon had inadvertently created an incentive for counties to use state corrections facilities. In Oregon, the counties pay no price for use of state institutions, so in essence, there is a free option for counties to place troublesome but not necessarily dangerous juvenile offenders in state correction facilities. Not surprisingly, there is and there likely will always be, pressure to expand juvenile institutions to house the counties' juvenile offenders. While on the surface this appears financially beneficial to county governments, it only serves to boost prison populations and costs, thus threatening other essential state services such as education.

Deschutes County and the Oregon Youth Authority hammered out a way to reverse this trend. The county offered to shift to a block-grant funding base where the county would manage in its local facilities non-dangerous juvenile offenders, who would otherwise have been placed in state institutions. The local programs are paid for with funds from the block grant with the agreement that any savings can be reinvested in crime prevention strategies. And the savings can be significant, as much as several hundred thousand dollars a year. A citizens' Commission on Children and Families is managing the money. These citizens bring a strong business perspective to the program and clearly differentiate between expenses and investments. This innovative approach won support from the state legislature and Governor John A. Kitzhaber.

If this program works and expands to other counties, Oregon will win in two ways. The current prison population can at least be restricted, and dollars once destined for costly prison operations can be reinvested in community crime prevention strategies.

These are just a few examples of efforts undertaken since the community justice initiative was launched. With citizens and victims more involved, there is an endless creative energy available to transform the criminal justice system into a community justice system.

Community justice clearly responds to victims' needs first, offers creative solutions to hold nonviolent offenders accountable and features crime prevention as an important aspect of the criminal justice system's daily activities. Central to this philosophy is the active participation of citizens in all aspects of the justice system. This citizen participation serves to expand the sense of responsibility for safer communities far beyond justice system professionals. With this new sense of ownership and responsibility, citizens willingly bring energy and resources never before made available through tax-supported means. Armed with a new philosophy and equipped with citizen-provided leadership and resources, the future looks brighter and safer for those places in pursuit of community justice.

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