Lisa Bedinger last week boxed up 10-years-worth of outreach and care with the South Burlington Community Justice Center. While she exits as director, Bedinger joined the center as panel coordinator, the first and only employee — meaning she sort of handled everything.
A decade later, the center offers seven programs, from restorative justice panels to survivor outreach in South Burlington, Shelburne and Charlotte.
As communities around the country rethink public safety models and question the role of police, Bedinger sees a path forward with more support for restorative justice. She moves on to continue her restorative justice work in schools, leaving Charlotte Broadbent as interim director while the center searches for a permanent replacement.
“I feel really lucky that I got to have this job, to do this work. I live in South Burlington, so this is my community,” said Bedinger.
The Center for Justice and Reconciliation describes restorative justice as a cooperative process that addresses the many impacts of crime on the responsible party, the affected party and the community. One of the founding principles of the theory is based on including the people impacted by crime in its resolution.
“A lot of times with crime there’s so much more to the story,” Bedinger explained. “And it’s really helpful to see if they can fix what they did, have that conversation and to make it right with the people they impacted.”
The Community Justice Center is primarily funded by the Department of Corrections and the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services. Some programs charge a fee, Bedinger added, and the city of South Burlington provides infrastructure support such as office space, utilities, human resources and tech support.
About 20 community volunteers make up the majority of the team, in addition to four part-time staffers that includes a victim liaison, parallel justice specialist, panel coordinator and director.
The center is housed in the same building as the South Burlington Police Department, up the stairs and down a quiet hallway. This proximity is integral to the close working relationship between the center and the police, according to both Bedinger and Police Chief Shawn Burke.
“It’s really powerful to get to see not only the impact that (the offending party’s) actual behavior had upon the affected party, but also how the community views that,” said Burke in describing restorative justice. “That seems to be a really powerful deterrent.”
With access to the police database, Bedinger saw an increase in domestic violence cases during the pandemic, kickstarting the center’s collaboration with advocates across the county to communicate with people in need and fill in service gaps.
This kind of partnership falls under the center’s parallel justice umbrella of work; something Burke praises as an area in need, that police can’t cover to the same extent.
“The survivor, the affected person, is in the driver’s seat. And I think there’s really some powerful moments when the affected party is present with the offending party and then there’s community members,” said Burke. “You get to appreciate from everyone’s perspective about how crime actually impacts the community. I think that’s really powerful for” all parties.
Many crimes don’t trigger the victim advocate at the prosecutor’s office, he added, so the center fills in those service gaps with their parallel justice efforts.
While the center’s caseload remained relatively steady during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Bedinger said the complexity of people’s needs — housing, mental health, food insecurity — increased. Flexibility and patience seemed to pull the center through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as Bedinger and her small team transferred services online.
At the same time, state courts canceled nearly all in-person proceedings, save for violent crimes, pushing more cases toward the Community Justice Center. Courts are still closed and under pandemic stress as they begin the crawl out of a year of operating online. Only a few weeks ago, the state greenlit the center’s ability to hold in-person mediations.
Burke credits much of the center’s growth to Bedinger, who he’s worked with for the last three years. During the pandemic, he praised the center’s seamless move to remote services and the team’s ongoing parallel justice work, reaching out to survivors impacted by crime.
Amid national conversations reexamining public safety in communities, Bedinger sees restorative justice as part of the solution, and described Vermont as “ahead of the curve,” in terms of restorative justice work. The South Burlington center is one of 17 in the state, but many communities throughout the country haven’t gotten there yet.
“Vermont’s starting a national conversation on how law enforcement and justice can be more intentionally interwoven,” said Bedinger. “We provide a model for other places in the country about what it could look like.”
As broader criminal justice reform has increased over the years, Burke said, the police department has referred more cases upstairs. Recovering from the pandemic, he expects police to continue referring cases to alternative programs like the Community Justice Center, rather than boomeranging back to the pre-pandemic norm.
“The restorative process really serves the affected persons and the community well,” he said. “Whether or not restorative practice needs to be baked into the classic criminal justice system, I think that’s a good question for our legislators. But I predict and hope that we will see more restorative practices in resolving crime in the community.”
More funding doesn’t seem to go hand in hand with more responsibilities though, Bedinger noted.
“People want more, but it doesn’t always come with the funding needed to do what people want us to do. We’re already being asked to do more without funding following those requests,” she said.