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Restorative justice pilot program comes to Charlottesville area

Tarek Maassarani

A new program in the Charlottesville area aims to provide an alternative path for those accused of crimes – and their victims – outside of the courtroom. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

This spring, if all goes well, some criminal cases in Charlottesville and Albemarle County will be rerouted away from traditional proceedings. Instead, they might be addressed through a restorative justice pilot program. One of its architects is Tarek Maassarani, a restorative justice practitioner and visiting professor at Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

TAREK MAASSARANI: Cases involving individuals who have been arrested would be diverted out of prosecution and placed with trained facilitators … a restorative conferencing process. That process involves folks who experienced the harm, folks who were responsible for the harm, and any of their supporters or other people that have been affected, coming together for a meeting in which they talk about what happened and how it has impacted different people. And then figure out how to move forward, making sure it doesn't happen again, and that as best as possible, the harm is repaired.

He said that, in the program's infancy, the local commonwealth's attorneys will be the ones responsible for referring cases to this process. Eventually, though, he said referrals could come from the police, judges, or outside the criminal justice system entirely, such as from school administrators. More important than the type of crime committed is having –

MAASSARANI: … both folks who've been … people who have been harmed and folks who've acted out the harm, who are willing – more than that, who are committed – to going through a process to make things better. If you have that as a baseline, really, restorative justice has been used in all kinds of harms, from the more routine, lower-level offenses of shoplifting and so forth, all the way up to homicide.

Maassarani expects the program will start out dealing with cases that are less extreme than homicide. The program is a collaboration between area commonwealth's attorneys and EMU's Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice. Maassarani said he's seen a trend of prosecutors becoming interested in this type of work. 

MAASSARANI: This is unusual, because prosecutors, up until five years ago, were routinely the most resistant to these kinds of changes.

The prosecutors working to bring this to fruition are Joe Platania, commonwealth's attorney for the city of Charlottesville, and Shannon Neal, assistant commonwealth's attorney for Albemarle County. They both worked previously as public defenders. Here's Platania.

Credit Joe Platania
Joe Platania is commonwealth's attorney for the city of Charlottesville.

JOE PLATANIA: I think we can relate to working with someone accused of a crime, and we have a background specifically working with indigent folks. And oftentimes, I think we found that they were not bad people. They had made a bad choice or a bad decision.

He said that a restorative justice process also benefits victims.

PLATANIA: The traditional model, the adversarial model, really has victims be put in a position where they're questioned and they have to come to court and take the stand and explain themselves, and it's all about, understandably so, the rights of the accused, and victims oftentimes feel like they're being sort of put through an unpleasant experience a second time.

Whereas restorative justice — 

Credit Shannon Neal
Shannon Neal is assistant commonwealth's attorney for Albemarle County

SHANNON NEAL: It really is this more holistic approach that recognizes that everyone involved is a human and has some active part in this, and that it's really about addressing harm and making things right in a way that involves and respects all of the individuals involved. 

Neal studied restorative justice before going to law school.

NEAL: My personal narrative the whole way through had been trying to find a way to make our criminal justice system more restorative and find ways to build this in … It's an obvious choice for the Commonwealth to support, because it's something that includes the community and its response to crime, and has higher victim satisfaction and has been shown to reduce recidivism.

Platania said their local drug court measures recidivism in terms of whether or not someone is arrested again within two years after completing the program. They're still deciding what exact metric they'll use to measure it with this program. 

PLATANIA: If we don't see the accused coming back and touching the criminal legal system again, that's, again, that's a win for everybody. It's a win for the accused, but it's also a win for the community and community safety and law enforcement.

They're accepting applications for restorative justice facilitators through December 20th – we'll have a link to Maassarani's email (tarek.maassarani@emu.edu) on our website for anyone who's interested. Facilitators will then go through an intensive training process that includes an apprenticeship with an experienced practitioner.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.