The Douglas County district attorney’s office is seeking to expand its alternatives to incarceration by establishing a restorative justice program intended to give a voice to victims and reduce recidivism.
The DA’s office has partnered with Building Peace, a local nonprofit providing mediation and conflict resolution services, to begin building a program that will initially work solely in juvenile justice cases.
The two organizations are currently working with the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (KIPCOR) to provide training in victim/offender dialogue. Trained facilitators will then oversee meetings between volunteer participants who will discuss harm and losses and then create an agreement for restitution.
Restorative justice mediation will be an option for prosecutors and defense attorneys during trial negotiations. Program details are still under consideration, so it is unclear whether case resolutions will include expungement from criminal records. Although implementation specifics are yet to be solidified, spokesperson Jill Jess said the DA’s hope is to reduce the criminal justice footprint.
“This is another possibility for how cases could be resolved with accountability,” Jess said. “The idea is that it restores the victim, it restores the community, and it restores the accused, so that they can all leave with a lesson and being ready for the next portion of their lives.”
Jess said that District Attorney Suzanne Valdez’s office began using mediation as an alternative to dispute resolution in October, resolving some cases prior to trial. She said retired Johnson County District Judge Kevin Moriarty had mediated more than a dozen cases, including a rape case that made national headlines. The case had been set for a retrial — which would have begun this week — after the defendant’s conviction was overturned, but it was resolved through mediation instead in December.
Jess said that although both processes employ mediation, cases that have been overseen by Moriarty are not associated with the program currently being implemented with Building Peace.
The restorative justice program will be added to criminal and enhanced diversion, behavioral health court, and drug court as options that are already offered to some people charged with crimes in Douglas County. Although eligibility and requirements differ depending on the program, all offer an alternative to jail time and reduce the likelihood that a participant will reoffend.
Lyle Seger, founding organizer of Building Peace, said approximately 290 communities across the country have instituted similar programs. In Douglas County, the process first began in 2020 under former DA Charles Branson but was stalled because of COVID-19.
A November informational session jumpstarted the process, and plans are now in place to offer a training program in five sessions that will be held online May. The course will offer a general understanding of the restorative justice process, and also provides direction for conducting mediation. Participants will be qualified to apply for mediator licensure, Seger said, but the information is pertinent to anyone in a position that might require conflict resolution.
A significant benefit to mediated dialogue is that the victim is given the opportunity to ask questions and discuss what might benefit them in the healing process. Unlike traditional retributive justice that focuses on punishment, a restorative process takes the responsibility out of government hands and puts it back into the hands of the community.
“The state winds up taking responsibility for the punishment being handed out to the offender and basically leaves the victim out of it,” Seger said. “That doesn’t allow the victim to have a say. The whole concept of restorative justice is that when harm is done it’s not done just to another person, it’s done to a whole community.”
Seger said it was critical to note that not all cases will qualify for incarceration alternative programs. Sexual assault crimes, for example, will not be considered due to the potential for re-traumatization. For cases that do qualify, involvement in the program is voluntary, and both the person harmed and the person charged must agree to it. Participants can revoke their involvement at any time, and those cases will revert to the traditional court process.
Restorative justice is not always an easy sell to communities that might see the process as soft on crime, Seger said. However, with a commitment to the process from both prosecutors and the community, restorative justice can significantly reduce the emotional, social and financial effects of crime.
Beginning the program with young people charged with crimes has the added benefit of interrupting criminal patterns at an early age.
“To stifle that now is better than the immediacy of getting that pound of flesh,” Seger said. “We’re catching them at a time when it was a weakness that they did what they did rather than lifestyle. It’s our hope if we can get people out of the pipeline of offense, reoffending, retraumatizing, and get them off that early in life, then the community is going to benefit.”