Colchester will be contributing $13,300 to the operation of the Essex Community Justice Center (CJC) after the center had to cut wages and hours for some staff.
The selectboard voted to provide the funding at its June 25. The CJC had asked both Milton and Colchester for $16,200 to help cover expenses in fiscal year 2019.
The CJC is an alternative to the criminal justice system. Those referred to the CJC by either the state’s attorney or the police must accept responsibility for their actions and make amends to those harmed to the satisfaction of a volunteer board. The boards have the ability to require those coming before them to also take actions such as searching for a job, getting a GED or attending school.
The center serves Essex, Colchester, Milton, Jericho, Underhill, and Westford, but is located in Essex Junction.
The center also provides conflict resolution services, which are often the result of police referrals.
“We essentially acknowledge that crime affects relationships,” says director Jill Evans, who has been with the CJC for about three years. “It deals with crime, prison re-entry (circles of support and accountability), and community dialogue/engagement around issues of public safety.” This is all through the work of volunteer community members.
The CJC has been funded since 2003 through a grant from the Vt. Department of Corrections that provides $214,000 per year.
But that grant is level-funded and doesn’t cover increases in wages or benefit costs for the center’s small staff. This forced the CJC to cut staff hours and hourly rates earlier this year in order to not be in the red.
“That was when we went to Colchester and Milton and said, ‘we’re going to have to keep cutting our staff if we don’t get funding from other sources,’” says Evans.
Essex serves as the center’s fiscal agent, providing $6,000 in in-kind services, and pays its rent of $16,200 annually. Milton and Colchester were asked to match the amount Essex contributes for rent.
According to Karen Dolan, Colchester and Milton Restorative Justice Panel Coordinator, the number of Colchester and Milton referrals and successful completions are on the rise. Since 2015, referrals have increased from five to 14 per quarter, with 43 total cases in Colchester referred in the last fiscal year.
Referrals have increased, from both the police departments and the state attorney’s office.
Dolan recounts a recent dispute that she helped to work through, following two neighbors with a forked driveway and a dispute over dogs. The case found its way to the CJC through the animal control officer, who saw the center as an alternative resource to something more serious and permanent.
“When you peeled back the layers you could see, yeah, this is about more than just the dogs,” says Dolan, who helped to reveal the deeper levels of miscommunication between neighbors.
On top of the current funding needs, Evans sees a need in the community for more services. “We have an interest in moving into the realm of parallel justice, which would be serving people who’ve been impacted by crime, whether or not the person who committed the crime is even apprehended,” she says. Similar programs exist already at the Burlington and South Burlington CJC’s.
“Basically, from the moment an incident happens, we would be available as a resource for people who’ve just had their home burglarized or their property damaged or whatever the case,” says Evans. “We don’t even want to survive at the level we’re at, we want to grow. We feel like there’s value in expanding our services so partnering with municipalities is important.”
At their most recent meeting, the Colchester selectboard voted to allot $13,300, instead of the original $16,200, to help fund the CJC. But Milton declined to fund their portion of the grant.
While the current grant requires the center to provide service to both towns, there is a possibility that Milton could lose services in fiscal year 2021. Not only would that affect residents, who don’t have a similar restorative justice program in Milton that they could turn to, but this could also negatively impact CJC staffers and the Milton Police Department.
Dolan, for example, oversees panels in Colchester and Milton. “Does that mean I have to cut half of her job?” asks Evans. “That’s not what we’re looking to do. Everybody has a different agenda about the money and how it gets used, and we’re just looking to meet the needs of the local communities and people who’ve been affected by crime and conflict, and to look for some support.”
Since the state’s attorney’s office often refers cases that reach their desk over to the CJC, the police department could be caught up in the middle—forced to go to a CJC outside of their area or go back to the state attorney, if Milton services are cut.
Dolan worries that finger-pointing between towns will force the center to keep making cuts, hurting residents, staff, and police.
“In terms of sustainability, especially in Chittenden County where we are providing so much direct service to law enforcement and the community itself,” says Dolan. “I think municipalities need to look at stepping in and stepping up.”
Especially because the center itself is a cost-effective alternative to the traditional justice system route, saving time and money for local police, courts, state’s attorneys, and public defenders. In the neighbor dispute, the CJC was able to keep law enforcement out of multiple calls and animal control out of the process and focused on other issues.
“It’s a broader conversation that’s happening at the town level about shared resources,” says Evans. “The Community Justice Center happens to be at the center of the conversation that sparked that interest.”