Blog Post: Treatment Courts and Restorative Justice, by Robert Sand

Blog Post: Treatment Courts and Restorative Justice, by Robert Sand

Treatment Courts (also known as problem solving courts) approach criminal justice responses and consequences in a fundamentally different manner than traditional courts.  Instead of imposing harsh punishment that does little to change underlying behaviors for the better, treatment courts engage the participant on a regular basis with the presiding judge who develops a motivating rapport with the participant. Judges use their authority to effect positive change. This stands in stark contrast to traditional courts where virtually all interactions are between the presiding judge and the lawyers, and the person accused remains passive. Additionally, the treatment court team, comprised of the judge, a coordinator, a prosecutor, defenders, treatment providers, probation, and law enforcement, are all mutually committed to the success of the participant, frequently catching the participant “doing something good.”  

Now imagine if the unique nature of treatment courts fused with the community building, accountability, and amends that are hallmarks of restorative justice responses.  Restorative Justice asks who was harmed, who has the obligation to make amends for that harm, and how can the net result lead to a strengthening not a diminishment of self-worth, relationships, and community.

While Restorative Justice, with ancient and indigenous roots, is a profound method for addressing harm, it is equally valuable at building community.  Sitting in circle where everyone has a chance to speak, radically departs from systems that rely on hierarchy to impose consequences and make decisions. Restorative Justice ensures that all voices are heard, and all affected parties have a say in shaping responses.

So how could treatment courts and RJ intersect – in many ways.  First, the RJ Treatment Teams meet on a regular basis to discuss participants.  Using RJ practices during those meetings would not only build community and strengthen the team but would also ensure that all members of the team have a voice. Second, the active listening which is a hallmark of RJ, may improve judicial interaction with participants during their 3 to 5 minute court dialogue. And how about the participants?  Teaching the participants about restorative dialogue would allow them to become a supportive cohort to each other during their time involved with the treatment court and develop a deeper understanding of the impact of their actions on others.  RJ would also provide a means by which a participant can make amends for the harm caused to community, family, and to themselves. Moreover, upon graduating from a treatment court program, having an alumni group schooled in restorative dialogue would provide reinforcing support for the graduates who no longer have contact with the treatment court team.

Both treatment courts and restorative justice work to help people acknowledge their own behavior and make positive change. Both treatment courts and restorative justice recognize the importance of connection and community, hallmarks of recovery capital.  Imagine the power of combining these two human-centered approaches.

Robert L. Sand joined the faculty at Vermont Law and Graduate School  on a full-time basis in 2016, having served as the Vermont Governor’s Liaison to Criminal Justice Programs, the former elected prosecutor (State’s Attorney) for Windsor County, Vermont, a position he held for 15 years, and a visiting professor of criminal law at Vermont Law School. He is a 1980 graduate of Hamilton College and a 1987 graduate of Vermont Law School, magna cum laude, where he served as the managing editor of the Vermont Law Review. He is a past member of the Vermont Law School Board of Trustees. He is an outspoken advocate for reform of the nation’s drug laws and has written and spoken extensively in support of changes to drug and criminal justice policy. He is a frequent witness before the Vermont House and Senate Judiciary committees on a variety of criminal justice matters.

Mr. Sand is the Founding Director of the Center for Justice Reform at VLGS, where he spearheaded the creation of a Master of Arts in Restorative Justice degree and a Professional Certificate in Restorative Justice. VLGS and the Center for Justice Reform host the federally funded National Center on Restorative Justice, in partnership with the University of Vermont and the University of San Diego. Sand holds a Certificate in Restorative Justice Facilitation and Leadership from the University of San Diego.