With the goal of giving second chances and alternatives to prison, the Dane County Community Restorative Justice Court program has successfully helped young offenders re-assimilate into the community.

The program places 17 to 25-year-olds who have been arrested for a crime into a community court instead of the traditional criminal justice system. At this court, victims and other members of the community work with the offenders to allow them to understand the consequences of their actions. Victims can directly ask offenders to pay for their crimes through service and restitution, among other methods.

Diverting young people this way helps offenders understand their impact on victims better, Paul Rusk, chair of Dane County Board’s Public Protection and Judiciary Committee, said.

The program began in November 2015 and currently is available to those in south Madison.

Rusk said there has been scientific evidence that suggests the brain is not fully developed until a person’s mid-twenties, often later for men. Rusk said punishing people for doing something when they are young can have a serious impact on their later development.

“We don’t want someone to screw up when they’re young and end up in the criminal justice system for the rest of their lives,” Rusk said.

One of the key components of the program is the offender-victim interaction it brings about, Jonathan Scharrer, University of Wisconsin Law School professor, said. It gives victims and offenders, who are referred to as “respondents” in the program, the opportunity to get questions answered and seek restitution.

Victims can be upfront with respondents about the impact the particular crime had on them, Scharrer said. Victims can also request that the respondents do specific things to make up for the crime, including community service and even service to victims themselves.

“The victims have a role and a voice in what the outcome is,” Scharrer said.

Respondents also reap several benefits. Rusk said interacting with victims changes their behavior, helping them understand the consequences of their actions and make permanent changes to avoid making the mistake again.

The program also diverts respondents to the restorative justice program before any criminal charges are officially entered against them. This means that respondents do not have a “criminal” mark that prevents them from getting jobs or housing in the future.

One of the program’s most prominent cases is 18-year-old Genele Laird, who was arrested at East Towne Mall June 19 for disorderly conduct and for threatening officers and mall staff. Now, Laird has been diverted to the restorative justice court, Rusk said.

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The program also differs from the traditional criminal justice system in that it allows peacemakers — trained community volunteers who assist with various aspects of the program, such as advocacy. They also take part in community conferences where victims and respondents come together to talk about the impact the crime had on the wider community, he said.

“These volunteers are a group of incredible individuals who are very invested and passionate about the community and about seeing positive outcomes and changes,” Scharrer said.

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Dane County Community Restorative Justice Court program has more than 40 peacemakers from all backgrounds.

Restorative justice court is unique in that it collaborates with the Madison Police Department, Dane County District Attorney’s Office and Dane County Human Services to offer services to victims and respondents and reduce recidivism.

While the program is currently limited to southern Madison, it aims to expand in the future. 

“People are being held accountable, but they’re not just hauled off to jail and are not put before a court commissioner or circuit court judge,” Rusk said. “They just go through this community process instead.”