Impromptu Pilgrimage

Elkhart, Indiana: a town of about 50,000 people at the confluence of the St. Joseph and Elkhart Rivers in the north-central part of the state. It’s been known as the “Band Instrument Capital of the World” and “RV Capital of the World.” But neither of those was the reason I decided to make an impromptu stop there on my way through this part of the state.

I stopped because Elkhart is where the restorative justice movement in the United States began over 30 years ago. I guess you could call it a “pilgrimage” of sorts, though a true pilgrimage would have been MUCH better planned than my spur-of-the-moment decision to exit I-90 and drive through Elkhart.

Despite my lousy planning, I managed to find my way to the offices of the original restorative justice organization that started THE MOVEMENT: the Center for Community Justice (CCJ).

Billi Beery, CCJ’s Financial Manager, was incredibly gracious and welcoming to the slightly disheveled, road-weary stranger who appeared in her office with no advance notice, rambling about some cross-country trip and a book about prisons. She was holding down the fort at the office while many of CCJ’s staff members were at a church across town, busily preparing for a 3-day victim-offender mediation training for 30 new mediators that was due to start in about an hour. Billi explained some of the history of CCJ, gave me some literature about their programs, offered me a drink and placed a phone call to the training group to ask whether I could stop by and say hello. (she did all of this between answering at least half a dozen incoming phone calls and helping several clients who came into the office)

By this point, I was more than a little embarrassed at having just dropped in on them like this and was kicking myself for not having thought to contact CCJ months earlier to try to arrange a proper visit.

But Billi hung up from her conversation with the trainers, said they’d be happy to meet me, printed a map and directions to the place where they were doing the training, wished me well and sent me on my way.

I drove the several blocks to the training site, went in and met the other CCJ staff members who would be conducting the training, asked them a little about their programs, briefly mentioned my cross-country trip and gave them a copy of the book (the very LEAST I could do!). Then I thanked them for being so gracious about letting me drop in, wished them the best with their training and all of their restorative justice work, and got back on the road.

When I reached Goshen (my destination for a couple of days), I took time to read all of the literature about CCJ that Billi had given to me. Here’s what I learned about “the place where it all began”…

In the mid-1970’s, the home of an Elkhart man named Randy Yohn was burglarized. Through a local probation officer named Steve Miller, Yohn agreed to meet with the burglar to talk about the impact of that crime and what needed to be done to set things right. The offender came to Yohn’s home – the home he’d violated – to meet with Yohn and his family. After that successful meeting, Miller, Yohn and several others decided to form an organization to provide opportunities for victims and offenders to continue to have these kinds of meetings to address the harms caused by crime.

Howard Zehr, the widely-acknowledged “grandfather of restorative justice,” was instrumental in the founding of this program, which became known as “Prisoners and Community Together” (PACT) in 1979. Howard Zehr was the first Director of PACT.

In 1984, that organization became the Center for Community Justice (CCJ) and has been going strong ever since, offering a variety of restorative justice programs.

CCJ’s programs include:
• Victim Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP)
• Community Mediation and Family Mediation
• Community Service Restitution – local judges can sentence offenders to do community service instead of jail time and CCJ coordinates the offenders’ community service placements
• School Suspension Project – youth who have been expelled or suspended from school and those on probation can be sent to CCJ to do community service during their days of suspension or expulsion
• Victim Impact Panels – victims and victims’ family members give presentations on the impact of impaired driving to people who have been charged with driving while impaired offenses and to teens who have committed alcohol or drug-related offenses
• Guided Family Intervention Project – a specialized counseling program for families whose teens have been in trouble with the law, to help identify underlying family issues and empower families to make changes to prevent further involvement in the juvenile justice system.

Until this year, CCJ also operated a Home Incarceration Program, Community Transition Program and Juvenile Reparation Program using grant funds from the Indiana Department of Corrections. However, they did not receive those funds from the DOC for this year, as Elkhart County has decided to take over these programs from CCJ. As a result, CCJ’s budget has been reduced by 57%, forcing them to cut staff. Ironically, they are now renting out some of the space in the modest building they occupy to Elkhart County Community Corrections, which took over the programs that CCJ used to run.

In the past year alone, CCJ has served over 5400 people, providing opportunities for offenders to become productive, contributing members of the Elkhart community and making Elkhart a safer community.

And about 5 months ago, CCJ hired a new Executive Director: it’s none other than Randy Yohn, that first victim who agreed to allow the offender who had robbed him to come into his home for a dialogue about how to set things right. Since that first experience with restorative justice so many years ago, Yohn has been a county sheriff, county clerk, council member, and member of CCJ’s board of directors. He was also a victim of crime a second time, and went through the restorative justice process again. In a local newspaper interview, Yohn said simply that he believes in restorative justice and that in his new role as CCJ’s Director, he’ll be looking for new ways to promote restorative justice.

With that kind of dedication and advocacy for restorative justice, who knows what wonderful new directions and opportunities the next 30 years might bring?

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: grace goes to prison restorative justice criminal justice book tour

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