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Staff Photo by Grant Morris

Amherst resident, Barry Nilson stands in front of the Franklin Pierce House in Amherst, Saturday afternoon. Nilson is trying to start a new organization, the Community Justice Partnership, with the help of state corrections officials.
Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Expert says alternatives to jail involve efforts of many

Barry Nilson of Amherst has big plans, namely changing the way New Hampshire metes out certain brands of justice, and he hopes to begin that change this summer.

Nilson, a former criminal justice lobbyist and advocate, has formed the Community Justice Partnership, a new division of the Emmaus Institute in Nashua. The partnership, if Nilson has his way, will this fall begin recruiting volunteers who will assign nonviolent criminals “restorative” alternatives to jail as part of their probation sentences.

Nilson said implementing restorative justice ideals would thin jail populations, save the state money, reduce recidivism and increase a community participation in its own justice system while increasing services to victims of crime.

He has already pitched the idea to state Department of Corrections officials and hopes to meet with them over the summer. While DOC officials have their hands full with upcoming changes to probation and parole laws, Nilson hopes to launch two or three pilot restorative justice boards in October.

The Community Justice Partnership would consist of a network of volunteer boards working under the direction of probation and parole officers. The system would also need the cooperation of judges, which would have the option to sentence criminals to probation with restorative elements built in, instead of assigning short jail terms for relatively minor property crimes.

“Judges would have an alternative sentence to mete out as they deem fit,” Nilson said.

Those activities could be a wide range of things and typically include letters of apology to victims, witnesses and police officers, community service, restitution, victim-offender dialogue sessions and public speaking engagements.

The activities can be closely tailored to the offender, Nilson said. For instance, a drunken driver could perhaps volunteer at a local emergency room and experience first-hand the type of harm his or her actions could have caused, Nilson said. Offenders would have to adhere to the board’s program like any other probation regulations or risk violating their probation and going to jail.

“You can call it shame if you want, but more important, they’re taking responsibility for what they did,” Nilson said. “It needs to be done in partnership with the community and victims.”

DOC officials are hesitant to fully back Nilson’s proposal because many details have not been ironed out, and officials aren’t sure his timeline to begin in October is doable. But the theory, DOC Division of Community Corrections Director Joseph Diament said, is a good one.

“I certainly have some interest in it. Conceptually, we’re all interested in the program,” he said. “In terms of our ability to focus on it, that’s just going to take a little while.”

Nilson has worked in criminal justice public policy since the late 1980s when he turned down an acceptance to law school to take a job at the Prison Fellowship. His work in criminal justice policy included an appointment in 1999 to the New Hampshire Citizen Advisory Committee to the Department of Corrections.

While restorative probation boards could save the state money by punishing nondangerous offenders in the community instead of jail, Nilson’s underlying philosophy runs deeper.

The process would help give a voice to victims of crime, the literal victims and the community as a victim, Nilson said. That voice is largely absent in western criminal justice systems in which “the state” takes over the role as victim and turns victims into the state’s witnesses, he said.

The roles are out of whack, Nilson said. Government’s role should be to restrain and punish offenders when crimes are committed. But there also has to be a role in the process for victims and the community, which is a sort of secondary victim.

“It is an offense against a real victim,” Nilson said. “Crime is more than law breaking. You’re doing an injury, and an injury requires real healing. I don’t think that’s too theoretical. The point is there’s various roles for everyone, and they’re complimentary.”

The restorative tasks would also be designed to increase offenders’ sense of responsibility for their crimes and to offer them tasks that will rebuild their connection to their community. The state can punish, Nilson said, but only community members can welcome offenders back into the fold. That is what will discourage further crimes, he said.

“It’s more ‘We’re going to partner with you, and we know you can do this,’ ” Nilson said. “What I’m trying to communicate is that it’s more than punishment.”

Nilson’s plans aren’t out of the realm of possibility. Diament said he knows similar programs have seen success in other areas. His concern is making sure it is done well rather than quickly.

“Personally, I think it’s a very sound approach to criminal justice work,” Diament said. “It engages the community with dealing with a community problem. We know that it’s been done successfully elsewhere. We’d rather do it well than just do it haphazardly.”

Nilson said he hopes to meet with Diament and other DOC officials soon to begin work on a cooperative agreement.

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashuatelegraph.com.