Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast recently was awarded a $924,307 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Innovations in Community Based Crime Reduction program. The funding will help the Belfast-based organization develop and put in place a collaborative and community-oriented plan to reduce crime, and catalog its outcomes along the way.

Restorative justice is an alternative to traditional criminal sentences — fines and jail time. Perpetrators and victims are brought together in “circles” with trained facilitators to resolve crimes in a way that is rehabilitative rather than punitive. The technique encourages those who have committed crimes to take responsibility and acknowledge who they’ve harmed.

Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast was the first group in Maine to use the approach, starting in 2005, and today provides restorative conferences for juvenile offenders, and some adults, in Knox, Waldo, Lincoln, and Sagadahoc counties, and offers services for Maine Coast Regional Reentry Center in Belfast, Long Creek Youth Development Center and K-12 schools.

The group has built partnerships with local law enforcement leaders and recently gained a champion in Natasha Irving, an advocate for restorative justice, who was elected district attorney for Waldo, Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties in 2018.

The federal funding will increase by more than a third RJP’s $850,000 annual budget over the four years of the grant. Some of the money will go toward regular operating costs and expanding services. A portion will go toward a new full-time data analyst position shared between RJP and the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine.

“They’ve already done a lot of work to look at national models and continuum of care that needs to be present,” RJP Interim Executive Director Carrie Sullivan said. “So this gives us a person that can start to look at those practices and see how our communities can start to build towards that.”

Those who support the practice of “restorative justice” see it as an antidote to a broken criminal justice system, and RJP and its partners believe it has made a big difference locally. But exactly how big has been harder to say.

The anecdotal evidence for restorative justice in the midcoast is persuasive — when Belfast turned to RJP for shoplifting cases, restitution rates went from zero to 100 percent, Sullivan said. “There was even a time when the store owner would say, You might consider applying for a job here. It’s the difference between a system that works like that and a system [in which] we penalize people and fine them and they get in worse trouble.”

Irving, the district attorney, said getting hard data will be essential for expanding the program.

“We won’t get buy-in from state legislatures, we won’t get buy-in from Congress, we won’t get buy-in from other grant opportunities if we can’t show what we’re doing.”

Traditionally, she said, the state has prosecuted theft, and shoplifting in particular, in ways that helped no one. When she took office, she found her assistant district attorneys were flooded with cases, retailers weren’t getting their money back through restitution, and the root causes — drug use, poverty and mental illness, as in the case of someone who steals compulsively — were often exacerbated by the penalties.

“If there’s not a restorative justice outcome, they’re likely looking at a fine,” she said. “Fining a person with severe mental illness or drug addiction $250 or $500 is not a solution to crime…. Telling somebody they have to pay a fine and lose their license for 150 days is not more powerful than alcoholism.”

With five misdemeanor theft charges — a not-uncommon occurence — petty theft is elevated to a felony, which can disrupt the convict’s life, family and employment.

Jason Trundy, chief deputy of the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office, knew about this problem but said a particular case — a woman who was arrested twice by the Sheriff’s Office within several weeks for operating under the influence — really drove the point home.

“This is a person who had a very successful job, a home, a family and on the surface appeared to be doing very well,” he said. “It struck me that this person’s going to go into the criminal justice system, face a mandatory license suspension, a hefty fine and probably doing jail time.... It’s going to mark them as a criminal defendant from that point forward on every job they ever apply for, when the real root cause of this problem is this person has a substance use issue.”

Trundy said he would prefer to divert some cases to restorative justice before they become criminal matters, in part because police often are called to the same situations over and over again. Likewise, ?Irving said her attorneys are “clamoring” for restorative justice, not just to decrease their workload, but because it works.

“Promoting real accountability, by hearing from somebody who’s lost a loved one or been injured terribly in a drunk driving accident, is what can help the situation,” she said.

With the federal grant funding, RJP is hoping to make restorative justice services available to more adults in the four-county area and create a central “hub” for restorative justice, which could eventually be a walk-in center where regular citizens could go instead of turning to police.

Sarah Mattox, program director for RJP, gave an example of how this might look: a woman recently came to the Belfast office because some youths she had known since they were born took her credit card and went on a shopping spree. She didn’t want them to end up in the juvenile justice system but wanted them to know how serious the offense was.

“Evidence shows, and increasingly neuroscience shows, that well-being and safety are correlated with responses that don’t trigger a huge shame response, but instead say, ‘You’re a good person; your strategy didn’t work.’”

In the future, Sullivan of RJP said the group would like to see law enforcement be able to make direct referrals to RJP without a summons.

“It’s sort of building this alternative justice system,” she said. “It’s a long process, but we feel this grant is a green light to go forward.”