Beginning in 2000, Wetherbee led his department to use restorative processes for juvenile offenses such as vandalism, trespassing, shoplifting, and bullying. The department encouraged the development of a group of trained volunteers to handle these matters, with an officer sitting in on each case.
The results were so positive, neighboring police departments got wind of the experiment and became interested too.
By the time Larson Sawin was hired in 2008, Communities for Restorative Justice had 80 trained volunteers handling referrals from police departments in two communities northwest of Boston.
Three years later, volunteers now number 100, and 10 communities are in the mix – including the urban communities of Cambridge and Arlington – with more communities knocking on the door. Offenses now include violent crime, offenders with records, and adult-initiated offenses.
“More of our police partners understand that restorative justice must treat the victim’s needs as central. If the victim wants restorative justice, it shouldn’t matter if the offender is 16 or 60, or that he broke into someone else’s house last week and therefore has a rap sheet,” explains Larson Sawin.
As an example of a successful case, Larson Sawin told of a swastika spray-painted on the side of a school building. The community wondered if there was a sleeper cell of neo-Nazis lurking about. When the young men responsible were caught, they agreed to participate in a circle process with members of the synagogue. They heard stories of childhood years spent in Nazi Germany and about all those who perished under that symbol. This encounter proved transformational for the young men.
As for the future, “we’ve got miles to go,” says Larson Sawin. “Any theory of change must include ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ strategies. While more communities are embracing this approach, we’re working towards statewide legislation. With folks like Chief Wetherbee in our corner, I know we’ll get there.”