July 28, 2021
By Justin Campfield
When Vermont Law School launched the Center or Justice Reform and debuted the nation’s first Master of Arts in Restorative Justice (MARJ) degree in 2018, it could not have foreseen the series of tragic events, most prominent among them the death of George Floyd, that have since thrust social justice and criminal justice reform to the forefront of national dialogue.
The rise in the public’s consciousness has paralleled increasing demand for the program, as the combined enrollment in the JD/master’s, master’s, and certificate programs are up nearly 50 percent since 2018. The federal government has taken notice too, as earlier this year the National Center on Restorative Justice, which is based at VLS, received a second $3 million grant from the Department of Justice.
But for the program’s early students—many of whom are now entering the workforce with their VLS degrees—the sense that a broken system desperately needs repairing isn’t new. They have the same goals now that they did when they entered the program. And their time has arrived.
Emily Severson MARJ’19 was a member of the inaugural residential MARJ class. Now living in Winchester, Virginia, she is a mitigation specialist for the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, covering a five-county area.
As a mitigation specialist, a job she says she was “obsessed” with while at VLS, she works alongside court-appointed defense attorneys for individuals who are facing criminal charges to, as she puts it, “advocate for them as an entire human being, not just for the offense that was committed.”
When a defense attorney refers new clients to her, she meets with them, builds rapport, gets to know who they are, and helps identify any addiction, mental illness, or other underlying issues that should be taken into consideration for sentencing.
“I try to paint a fuller picture so they get a more reasonable sentence based on all the factors, not just what they did,” says Severson. “Most of my clients come from drug-related cases, so I try to find treatment programming to help address the real problems. Many of them have suffered real trauma and are self-medicating.” Severson shares that she quickly learned that “big wins” are not a part of the job. She may work with 50 people over a period of a few months and only succeed in getting a handful of them into treatment programs.
“I have to find things that are less sparkly and shiny to keep me going,” she says.
She experienced one such moment while working with an articulate 24-year-old woman who shared her life story. It was a heart-wrenching tale of drugs, incarceration, and her attempt to heal herself the only way she knew how—heroin and meth. At the end of their 45-minute meeting, the client thanked Severson, stating, “it seems like you really care, and it’s hard to find someone who cares in this system.”
“I believe in the work I do and I’m incredibly honored to do it and be with people in their darkest times,” says Severson, quietly recalling the encounter.
"They are in jail, baring their souls to me, and I can let them know that they matter. That I will help them get on a better path." Emily Severson MARJ’19
It only took one VLS restorative justice class led by John Kidde, and Susan Sam-Mensah MARJ’20 was hooked.
Originally from Ghana and a graduate of Colby-Sawyer College, Sam-Mensah was working as a legal assistant in New York when she learned about VLS’s restorative justice program. Seeing it as a way to marry justice reform with her long-held interest in human rights, she enrolled at VLS, beginning her studies with that fateful class with Professor Kidde.
“I was interested in justice systems that focus on repairing the harm between offender and victim, and helping integrate the offender back into society,” says Sam-Mensah. “People perpetuate harm, but there has to be a reason why. And locking them up in prison is not the answer.”
Now a freshly minted graduate of the program, Sam-Mensah is an adult court diversion case manager in Windsor County, Vermont, handling a caseload of between 50 and 70 clients. “We help them think about and talk about what they did, and the lessons they learned from their actions, while finding ways to repair harm,” Sam-Mensah affirms.
One of the innovative ways Windsor County does that is through restorative justice panels, which are facilitated by Sam-Mensah or community volunteers trained by her.
The panels feature a conversation between the offender and affected parties about how harm has impacted them and how the offenders can make it right. A key component of these panels is helping offenders understand that the harm they caused didn’t only impact them, but also their families, victims, and community members. The goal is not to hold a meeting out of punishment, which drives so much of the traditional justice system, but rather to gain a deeper understanding of the harm created and develop a plan to avoid re-offending.
“I think everyone deserves a chance to be heard and to speak what they feel,” says Sam-Mensah, whose main responsibility on the panels is to make sure the conversations proceed in a restorative way. “Restorative justice offers that. People are not their wrong. They are not the harm they made, they just made a mistake. They shouldn’t be treated any differently just because of one mistake. If their actions were intentional, there has to be a reason why they did it.”
"I was interested in justice systems that focus on repairing the harm between offender and victim, and helping integrate the offender back into society." Susan Sam-Mensah MARJ’20
Beyond the benefits restorative justice practices can have on the individuals involved in cases of harm, there are larger, societal benefits as well, according to Sam-Mensah and Severson.
By treating the underlying reasons offenders cause harm in the first place, future instances can be avoided. Sam-Mensah cites the hypothetical example of someone who robbed a store because they were hungry.
“If you just lock them up in prison for a year, what’s that going to do?” asks Sam-Mensah. “They are just going to come back out, be hungry again, and rob another store.”
Severson says that even if some policymakers and criminal justice officials can’t come to accept the tenants of restorative justice, they should consider the compelling financial case to be made through implementing its practices.
“Many of the people in my caseload have been in and out of jail, and it costs around $30,000 per year to house a person in prison,” Severson states. “That’s a big reason to operate differently than we do now, so we aren’t spending this money to incarcerate the same person over and over. My work mitigates those costs and relieves our overrun courts and overcrowded prisons.”
Severson says that these benefits, coupled with society’s growing awareness of inequalities and the need for justice reform, have put restorative justice on a path toward even greater acceptance and adoption, resulting in increasing demand for practitioners educated in the field.
“I think that people are starting to be more willing to think ‘what do we need to do to change things for the better?’” Severson remarks. “This is the prime time to jump in and be a leader in that.”
“This field is becoming more highly regarded, and they are seeking people with master’s degrees because they are realizing the impact and importance of a position like this. People who really believe in it are going to find jobs. They are out there.”
This article was featured in the Spring 2021 Loquitur—The Alumni Magazine for Vermont Law School. Read more here.