Thurston County is starting to test a new program that aims to repair relations between non-violent drug offenders and the people they have affected.
The Restorative Justice Facilitated Dialogue program received its first referrals in February after months of collaborative discussion between the Dispute Resolution Center and Thurston County. If successful, the pilot could be expanded, and similar programs may be extended to other aspects of criminal justice.
This iteration of the program specifically brings individuals participating in the Thurston County Drug Court program, a court-supervised alternative to incarceration, with those who have been harmed or impacted by their crimes.
Jody Suhrbier, executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center, said the new program is intended to set up participants for success when they graduate from the Drug Court program.
"Any efforts that folks can make towards making amends and repairing harms really serves them well in their future," Suhrbier said. "It means there's room for relationship repair, rebuilding trust, strengthening a sense of self, competency and capacity. That's the promise of this program."
Thurston County is funding the program with money it receives from the state Criminal Justice Treatment Account, a funding source that supports drug courts and treatment services, said prosecuting attorney Jon Tunheim. He added the cost of the pilot program is not to exceed $10,000.
Tunheim's office has been one of the key voices that have helped shape this program, along with the public defender's office, Drug Court and victim advocates, Suhrbier said.
Wayne Graham at the prosecuting attorney's office said the Dispute Resolution Center contacted them about a year ago as they were exploring innovative approaches to justice.
"We started kind of brainstorming and with some collaboration, Drug Court really kind of rose out as a neat opportunity to try something a little different," Graham said.
From there, Patrick O'Conner, director of Thurston County Public Defense, jumped on board. O'Conner said he has been supportive of the program from the start.
"We're supportive of any restorative justice program on behalf of our clients that gives them the opportunity to repair harm," O'Conner said.
The completely voluntary program will be limited to just six cases between now and June with the first session likely starting in March, Suhrbier said.
A couple referrals have already been received and more will follow as individuals make their way through the Drug Court program, she added.
How it works
This restorative justice program is specifically open to willing Drug Court participants and victims who fit established criteria.
Such individuals may be referred to the program with input from key stakeholders such as the prosecuting attorney's office, public defender's office, victim advocates, Drug Court judges, family members and community members.
Sabrina Craig, DUI and Drug Court Program manager at Thurston County Superior Court, said they are offering the program to people who are further along in the Drug Court program.
"Once they've progressed in the program, they're more agreeable to something like this," Craig said. "Whereas early on in someone's participation they might not be able to see the benefit in doing something like this."
However, it's also imperative for victims to be feel safe and willing to participate, said Stanley Phillips, Senior Victim Advocate at Thurston County. He said he helps identify appropriate cases and reaches out to victims to explain the program.
"It's not for everybody and especially as a victim advocate, we 100 percent respect whatever the victim's choices are," Phillips said.
Once a case is referred to the restorative justice program, the Dispute Resolution Center meets with the Drug Court participant and the people they have affected to go over the program and address any concerns in advance.
Suhrbier said each participant will go through 1-3 private coaching sessions with two facilitators before starting dialogue in a group.
If they successfully make it that far, facilitated dialogue can begin with trained mediators. These sessions are about two hours long and may be repeated a second time if more dialogue is needed, Suhrbier said.
"It's really quite an opportunity to expand one another's understanding of both — what was going on for that person and what impact it had," Suhrbier. "Some people find it really important to be able to offer forgiveness... and really just that sense of closure."
She added these sessions will be conducted virtually for now and the Dispute Resolution Center can offer technology and space to those who need it to complete their sessions.
Phillips said these sessions also have the potential to address a victim's concerns and desire for answers. Citing his past experience, he added a victim may also ask for some kind of restitution from the offender.
"In a case I was involved with in the past, one of the issues that the victim had is she wanted this offender to carry on the work that her son was doing that he couldn't do anymore," Phillips said. "That was one of the arrangements that came out of this (case) and there was a lot of satisfaction with that."
On the other hand, Drug Court participants can use dialogue sessions to say what they have done to be a more positive member of the community, Craig said.
"Things that they've worked to accomplish in drug court, i.e., their recovery and changing their lives, has had bigger benefits than just them," Craig said. "The goal is really to improve the community, not just the individual but the community."
How to measure success?
Suhrbier said the pilot program is being kept small so they can evaluate specific outcomes from each case before moving to build out the program.
"We have the opportunity to make refinements so that we are basically building the program in a way that will be sustainable in the long term," Suhrbier said. "There's every intention and hope that we'll see the outcomes that we're hoping for, and that the program will grow and continue beyond June 30."
She said the Dispute Resolution Center will evaluate the program by comparing how participants felt before and after the facilitated dialogue sessions. She added they will also look at feedback from Drug Court counselors.
"We are not going to get into a long-term follow-up study with folks," Suhrbier said. "Based on our experience and our knowledge in the realm of conflict resolution and what sessions like this mean for folks, those first indicators are actually really helpful and useful to predict positive future outcomes."
Given that its starting in Drug Court, prosecutor Graham said he hopes this program can help offenders reconnect with family members they may have victimized.
"Often times the cases that we get in Drug Court don't have a direct victim for whatever reason," Graham said. "Our indirect victims or ancillary victims is (often) family... If that support is reengaged or reestablished... that's the biggest harbinger of success."
If the program appears to be getting positive feedback, Wayne said he would want to proactively secure more funding to continue and expand the program.
"If it's positive, my hope is that we would be in front of a termination deadline," Wayne said. "So that when we get to that deadline, we're already moving forward, we're not just going to put it on pause."
Going even further, O'Conner said he hopes the success of this pilot will lead to more restorative justice programs in the county. He said such a program could be useful in other aspects of criminal justice besides Drug Court.
"It's a pretty small-scale endeavor at this point, but I would consider success at this point is piloting the project, learning from the pilot and having the pilot expanded in the future with additional funds and casting a wider net so to speak," O'Conner said. "That would be a success to me."