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Restorative justice center offers alternative to low-level offenders

Falcon News Service

April 14, 2016

Upon being arrested and charged with a low-level offense or petty misdemeanor, someone accused of a crime may face uncertainty about what will happen in the court system. Instead of thinking in traditional terms of justice, the St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Center in River Falls offers a different approach.

Rather than an offender going through the traditional justice system, where there is simply crime and punishment, the St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Center offers a process of reconciliation with the victims and the community as a whole.

Susan Capparelli, executive director of the center, said the idea of restorative justice has resonated with her since her time as a master’s student at Hamline Law School in St. Paul. She says restorative justice has been revolutionizing the criminal justice system in many ways.

“The victim is often kind of neglected in the court system,” Capparelli said. “That role of healing is not there.”

The courts acknowledge that in certain cases restorative justice is a more favorable alternative than the traditional system. The court will often divert offenders to a restorative justice program, or the offenders are charged with a lesser offense for participating in a program.

The courts recognize that in order to keep recidivism, or people committing the same offenses, from happening there has to be an alternative to the traditional model, which seems to fail low-level offenders. To reduce recidivism rates, Capparelli said, offenders’ thinking and behaviors have to be changed.

“A big part of the restorative process is empathy, accountability through empathy,” Capparelli said. “And hearing a story of a victim, or a victim’s surrogate, or community members that have been impacted by crime and conflict in the community, so there’s that ripple effect. Those things are just not discussed in the judicial system.”

UW-River Falls works directly with the St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice with students who have been charged with underage consumption of alcohol and drug offenses. Capparelli said the program serves the two-county area: St. Croix and Pierce counties. However, some types of cases, including felonies and sexual assaults, are not handled by the program.

“We have our own criteria. I think that outside agencies and entities appreciate that, that we’re not trying to be everything,” Capparelli said. “By and large, restorative justice for these petty offenses, that do not need to sit in our criminal justice system for nine months or 18 months, can be very effective and highly cost saving.”

A typical week at St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice has different sessions: underage consumption panels, controlled substance and alcohol intervention, a teen traffic violation seminar, or a victim impact panel, to name a few. Retail theft intervention is another area of concern for the program.

“What we offer is a brief, focused intervention. So it’s typically only about a two-hour commitment, and it is focused on accountability,” said Liana Frey, manager of the center’s operations. “While it is non-judgmental, you’re here for a reason, you’re here to do work, so participation is required.”

The non-profit organization operates on a $150,000 annual budget, Capparelli said, relying on a few grants and community donations, as well as the nominal fees that offenders pay — $35 for children and $65 for adults. The program has roughly 40-50 volunteers, a few student interns and community members who help with certain aspects of the circle conferences.

St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice’s annual fundraising dinner and auction is scheduled April 23 at the Kilkarney Golf Course in River Fall.