Drug Court

New county program lets drug court participants meet with victims of crimes for facilitated conversation

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A new program launched within the Thurston County justice system officials allows participants of the drug court program to meet with victims of crimes they were convicted of for a facilitated conversation. It was announced last week.

The Restorative Justice Pilot Program is built on an expanding trend in criminal justice systems that aims to prepare offenders for re-entry into society after a sentence is complete.

The program is a partnership between the Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office, drug court and the Dispute Resolution Center of Thurston County (DRC). A press release from the prosecutor’s office reads in part: “Unlike the traditional criminal justice approach that often focuses on punishment and labeling conduct, restorative justice is a community-based approach that prioritizes accountability by offenders taking responsibility for their actions, understanding the harm they have caused, and providing an opportunity for redemption.”

Jody Suhrbier, executive director of the DRC, said the meetings between the drug court participants and victims of crimes can take place over a single two-hour session. When a meeting is scheduled, Suhrbier said, DRC staff will meet one-on-one with each participant in advance, coaching them through the conversation to come.

“Prepping them on what they might be ready to share, what they might be ready to hear, whether or not they might want support to get through that process, and basically coaching them so that they can make the best use of that session as possible,” said Suhrbier.

The conversation itself is a two-hour session, and there can be a follow-up meeting if the parties want it.

The process is entirely voluntary and is sparked when a drug court counselor thinks a participant would benefit from going through the program.  

“A lot of victims express fear of retaliation or harm or safety issues, and so this provides that opportunity for them to hear directly from the person that harmed them about where they’re at in their life now and … where they have plans to move forward,” said Stanley Phillips, senior victim advocate with the Crime Victims Advocate Network.

Phillips described his role in this new program as identifying cases where this program is also beneficial for the victim, and reaching out to them about the opportunity. Many aren’t interested in sitting down with a person that caused them harm. But, he said, some are.

There have been facilitated dialogues in Thurston County in the past, but never as part of an organized program and not as part of the drug court specifically, said Phillips. The meetings can be intense and emotional, he said, recalling a dialogue between the mother of a murder victim and a person involved in the crime.

“She was able to get questions answered about the crime and about what really happened,” said Phillips.

The new program in Thurston County is open to participants of the drug court, specifically. Suhrbier said the program’s origin started at the behest of the prosecutor’s office. Members of the various departments met for months, talking about where restorative justice best fits into the fabric of the Thurston County justice system. Drug court, the officials determined, seemed the best fit for a restorative justice program like this.

The drug court program typically takes about two years. It’s an alternative to jail available to people convicted of nonviolent crimes that were caused or spurred by drug or alcohol dependence. It requires its participants to build a number of life-building skills, including landing a job and breaking the cycle of addiction.

The new restorative justice program is an add-on to drug court, said its program manager, Sabrina Craig. Participation is completely voluntary and isn’t required to complete the drug court program.

“We hope that we’re restoring these people’s lives, that they are becoming contributing members of the community. And that means that they’re taking responsibility for things that they’ve done. And I think I see this [restorative justice program] as an opportunity for there to be an understanding on the part of our participants, you know, from the victim’s perspective,” said Craig.

Craig said they hope to have six participants in the restorative justice program by the end of June.

Restorative justice programs are becoming more common across the country, although not all of them use the moniker “restorative justice.” County officials, as they prepared to launch the program, assembled a literature review of similar programs across the country. The review highlighted numerous studies done on similar programs within the past few decades.

A review of 63 empirical studies on facilitated dialogue found between 80 and 90 percent of participants were satisfied with the process — including both offenders and victims.

The literature review also indicates recidivism rates drop among people who engaged in facilitated dialogue. However, there’s a large gap in just how much of an effect there can be, depending on the study. One study was conducted between 1993 and 1996. It found facilitated dialogue participants had a 2.5 percent drop in recidivism. But another found the rate dropped by about 39 percent.

For Suhrbier, a program like this not only helps amend for previous mistakes, but also gives participants a tool that can help them in the future.

“Anything that can help them navigate tough situations and navigate conflict in the future, and in relationships that have been rocky, will provide them with that positive next step for a brighter and more promising future,” she said.

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