Justice healers available, now branching out
Supporters of a promising new mediation program that unites crime victims and offenders are eager to do more work. They are also willing and able to handle more serious cases.
St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice relies on a core of trained volunteers. The program was launched just over two years ago by Marlene Parslow of River Falls, a family court counselor in Washington County, Minn., and Keith Rodli, a River Falls attorney who specializes in civil mediation.
Restorative justice is a national concept that stresses reconciliation rather than retribution. Parslow said that victims are the focus.
"No matter what level of crime you're dealing with, this program is victim initiated and victim driven," she said. "It's not an alternative to the court process, but using restorative justice may influence a court ruling."
The St. Croix Restorative Justice program relies on court referrals, but anyone can make use of this free service.
Parslow said referrals can be made by police officers, school administrators, municipal judges, social workers, probation officers and just about anyone involved in a dispute.
"No matter who, I find it very fulfilling to bring people together to heal," she said. "Crimes destroy relationships, and what we're about is repairing the fabric of those relationships.
St. Croix Restorative Justice - serving both Pierce and St. Croix counties - has been less busy than expected. Still, the range of cases that mediators have handled, Parslow said, were varied - from an arson at a school outside River Falls to a trailer court home burglary.
And Parslow said nine mediators were called to deal with four families and the turmoil caused by behavior of a few neighborhood kids.
"It had caused a rift among these people, and we were able to get things settled very well by the end," she said. "When we left them they were planning a neighborly potluck dinner."
Usually only a pair of trained mediators is used per case. If there are multiple parties involved, more are brought in.
Mediation sessions are held at many places but most often at local churches or a meeting room at the public library.
The local mediation program has been geared for less serious crime, such as theft or vandalism. The mediator works with both sides, and victims can freely express how a crime has hurt them.
The intent is to show offenders the consequences of their crime.
"This is about forcing them to realize the personal damage they have done, to humanize their crime," Parslow said. "It's putting a face on the crime for the offender to see."
Parslow and Kevin Grothe, another mediator who is an environmental consultant by trade, have been trained to mediate more-severe crime cases.
Last month the two completed a 48-hour class at the University of Minnesota's National Restorative Justice Training Institute. The class was called "Victims of Severe Violence Meet the Offender: A Journey Towards Healing and Strength."
"We are crossing into new territory now," Parslow said. "It was one of the most emotional, insightful things I've ever gone through. The intent was to make us see both sides of crime, how lives were led to these positions."
Parslow interviewed four people serving time for murder in a medium-security prison. She also talked to a father of a 14-year-old daughter who was murdered on her way to school, and a woman who was blinded and paralyzed after being deliberately shot in the head at her friend's house by two teenage burglars.
Through video conferencing, Parslow watched mediating sessions for serious crimes.
"It was incredible to see how the process unfolds, how to communicate with both sides during something that's so intense," she said. "But I now feel I'm prepared."
Parslow and Grothe will actually be put to the test. They have been asked to use their new mediating skills for a vehicular homicide case in a nearby county.
Concept catching on
Brad Farrier, school district academic services director, is moving ahead with a plan to have some River Falls teachers versed in restorative justice techniques.
"We're in the process of training people in using those principles," said Farrier, who is also part of the 14-member board that oversees St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice. "It takes a commitment to get it going. I think we'll have taken some baby steps toward doing that by this spring. We haven't worked out the details yet."
Farrier said the Barron County restorative justice director spoke to Meyer Middle School teachers during an in-service workshop this fall.
"I have never felt good issuing punishments where the kid does his time, we close the book, and off we all go on our merry ways," Farrier said. "What do you learn from that?
"It's a more thoughtful learning experience to teach kids the consequences for their actions, not only for themselves but for other people, and the moral responsibility we have to each other."
Farrier said restorative justice fits with the school district's approach to solving problems. He added that it's similar to "peer mediation" that the elementary schools have used for years.
Pierce County District Attorney John O'Boyle has been setting up Victim Impact Panels, an offshoot of the restorative justice program. These panels have brought together drunken drivers with victims and survivors of drunk driving.
"Based on the feedback, the surveys and turnout, we've had fairly good success," O'Boyle said. "We seem to be reaching the drunk driving offenders on an emotional level. The best barometer, of course, would be to track these people to see if they end up re-offending."
O'Boyle said he would like to see more involvement from St. Croix County on the Victim Impact Panels.
"There is potential to greatly expand the reach of these panels if we move into St. Croix County," he said.
O'Boyle is surprised that St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice mediators aren't used more.
"It may be time to step back and look at the program and then gradually build on it," he said. "Instead of first finding out what the need was, we got all the mediators gathered and trained right away, and that may have been putting the cart before the horse."
O'Boyle said that while Parslow has done a spirited job of keeping the program afloat in her spare time, a paid director is really needed.
"We need somebody to manage the program as a whole, run the panels and referrals," O'Boyle said. "That will give it more structure, more consistent organization."
Rodli said such help may be on the way. The IRS recently designated St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice a charitable organization.
"That means donations we receive can be used as tax writeoffs," Rodli said.
Rodli hopes this will make it easier to attract grants and other big contributions.
"Our primary goal is to find a full-time director," he said. "Marlene has done the bulk of the coordinating and that has used a lot of her own time for this.
"We need a person we can put in this position who can talk regularly with the district attorneys and the people in the victim witness programs - someone who can be there to grease the skids. We also need more referrals from the criminal justice system."
Rodli admitted that while he too is surprised at the slow start of the restorative justice program, his enthusiasm remains.
"I'm still fired up about what we're doing," he said. "If we were building a house, we would still be putting in the foundation, but we're building a strong foundation."
While Rodli is looking to attract big-time donors and secure grants, he said individual contributions are also needed.
Send them to St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice/P.O. Box #663/River Falls, WI 55402.
The following are a list of active trained mediators for the program: Liz Jones, Marilyn Gigure, Anne Maule, Connie Holck, John Holck, Kevin Grothe, Petrona Melgarejo, Chris Tyler, Linda Singel, Dianne Hubbell, Rex Bothwell and Julie Magnuson.
If you have questions about St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice, call Parslow at 425-7525 or Rodli at 425-8569.