Restorative justice comes to the Twin Cities

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AUBURN — Three years ago, Seth Levy was representing a young man charged with vandalism at a local high school.

The Brunswick defense attorney approached the prosecutor and judge in the case and proposed taking a different approach to handling the $20,000 crime.

The assistant district attorney was resistant, Levy recalled. Unfamiliar with the process, the judge expressed some reservations.

But Levy persisted and the skeptics relented.

Over the following year, Levy’s client and his co-defendant not only took full responsibility for their actions, they set about working with members of the community, including police, to fix the physical, financial and emotional damage they had caused.

The two men got jobs; restitution was paid in full.

“It was really this remarkable process that changed these two young men’s lives around,” Levy said.

At the sentencing hearing, more than a dozen people from the Bath community told the judge that “these two young men had done a remarkable job,” Levy said. They were clearly impressed by the transformation the defendants had undergone, he said. “It was really a powerful moment.”

In the legal world, the process Levy had advocated is called “restorative justice.” Simply put, it allows the victims of crimes to be involved directly in the judicial process, along with the defendant, in an effort to achieve a more personally satisfying outcome for everyone.

This still novel approach is seldom sought in Maine’s adult criminal courts. More often, it’s been confined to the juvenile justice system, though increasingly, elements of restorative justice can be found incorporated into specialty judicial venues, such as drug court, where defendants follow an alternative track of justice that may include meeting with victims.

And it’s not right for every case. Levy said it’s more appropriate for nonviolent cases.

In Androscoggin County, the unique concept hasn’t yet been put to the test in any adult criminal cases.

That’s about to change.

Thanh Le, a 46-year-old Vietnamese man from Lewiston, faces a raft of burglary and theft charges stemming from incidents last summer.

Levy, his lawyer, has pitched Le as a test case for the Twin Cities’ legal community.

On Feb. 5, in Androscoggin County Superior Court, Levy’s client is scheduled for a restorative justice conference.

Instead of hammering out a plea agreement or picking a jury for trial, as Levy would normally be doing at this point in his case, he’s hoping that Le’s victims might agree to taking a different route to justice.

The charges against Le arise from several separate incidents: He is accused of burglarizing two homes from which he stole a pocketbook, a ladder and a karaoke machine; and of stealing a purse from a parked car.

He faces nine counts in all, including three felonies.

In the home burglaries, Le had been acquainted with both families. He could be seen on surveillance cameras in their homes during the burglaries, according to court papers.

Conditions of his bail include no contact with any of his victims and a nighttime curfew.

Assistant District Attorney Lisa Bogue, who is prosecuting Le, said Levy reached out to her with a new approach toward resolving the case.

She was familiar with the concept, which her office has embraced, but she hadn’t yet prosecuted any cases using restorative justice, she said.

“To me, it’s about helping a defendant hopefully understand the impact their conduct has had on their community through the victims,” she said. “Everyone’s invited to sit around the table so that the person can also look around and see what impact their action has had on all of these people.”

Le’s case is expected to begin on Feb. 5 with a gathering of his various victims, some of whom will need to meet with a Vietnamese interpreter to be better informed about what the process would entail.

Speaking generally about the restorative justice process, Bogue said: “I think there’s a benefit to victims. I feel like they, too, really want to address the defendants to be able to tell them that they don’t care that much about the fine or the jail or the punitive part that the court imposes, but that a person can really feel that they’ve been wronged.”

During a conventional sentencing, a victim has one opportunity to speak to the judge or write a letter conveying the harm they’ve endured because of the defendant’s actions.

Even if all of the victims are on board, there’s no guarantee of a successful outcome.

“There are a lot of moving pieces,” Bogue said.

And there’s an added cost, at least in the short term. Levy would argue a successful outcome would save the state money in the long run.

Levy, who has successfully brought two restorative justice cases through the adult criminal system in Maine, explained the nuts and bolts of the process.

A facilitator is brought in to run a conference, where the offender meets with and is addressed by the victims and others in the community. A facilitator is critical to this work, and it’s probably not appropriate for an attorney on the case to serve in that role, Levy said.

In the cases of his clients, the Restorative Justice Project, which serves midcoast Maine, is tasked with organizing and facilitating the conferences. In Le’s case, that organization has been joined by The Restorative Justice Institute of Maine to co-facilitate the case.

At the conference, the defendant is expected to apologize for his conduct and should hear from his victims who would share with him how his crimes have affected them.

Next, a reparative agreement is drafted, which details the actions the defendant would need to complete, usually over six to 12 months, Levy said. The defendant would often work with a volunteer mentor over the course of that process.

At the end of that process, the group would reconvene to determine whether all the terms of the agreement were met.

The initial charges might be reduced or dismissed, Levy said, depending on the case. The focus, though, is on the emotional outcome for the victims and the defendant.

In the case Levy just finished in Cumberland County in which the defendant had caused property damage, that was the result.

The defendant’s life changed, Levy said.

“Really, he’s so re-engaged,” Levy said. “This is someone who was not engaged in his world and now he is.”

Had he followed the usual course of criminal justice, the defendant would have gone to jail for awhile and been ordered to provide restitution that he might never have fully paid.

“That didn’t happen,” Levy said. “He got it all done. And he has people in his life now who care about him, who are rooting for him and you can see his self-esteem has completely turned around.”

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Lisa Bogue, assistant district attorney, listens to testimony during a recent trial at the Androscoggin County Courthouse in Auburn. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal file photo)

Seth Levy is a criminal defense attorney in Brunswick. (Submitted Photo)

Thanh Le is charged with several counts of burglary and theft.

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