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Minn. county turns to 'traditional' justice, and its working

Sharon Hendrichs, left, and Julie Marthaler spoke about Yellow Medicine County's restorative justice program at the University of Vermont. The county's efforts have won both state and national attention. Special to Forum News Service1 / 2
Yellow Medicine County has become a leader in the region in its use of restorative justice based on a traditional, Native American approach using circles that involve community members, offender and victims. From left are Melissa Helgesen, Yellow Medicine Family Services, with volunteers Dave Benson and Mike MaKarrall and Sharon Hendrichs, director of the program. Tom Cherveny / Forum News Service2 / 2

GRANITE FALLS, Minn. — Skyrocketing costs for placing juvenile offenders in out-of-home facilities persuaded a western Minnesota county in 2002 that it was time to do something different.

Yellow Medicine County took advantage of state funding to launch a restorative justice program. Victims, offenders and community members join in circles as part of a traditional, Native American approach to justice aimed at healing, accountability and behavior change.

The county saw out-of-home placement costs drop from $620,000 in 2002 to $55,000 in 2010, according to Sharon Hendrichs, restorative justice coordinator for the county.

Those costs have started to creep back up, but the county's commitment to restorative justice remains steadfast. The county has made restorative justice a county department with two full-time staff members and made it the focus for much of its corrections work.

Hendrichs and colleague Jessi Jeppesen now coordinate 80 volunteers working in 18 different circles aimed at helping juvenile offenders, substance abusers, struggling families and youth making the transition back into family and community life.

The county's commitment to restorative justice has attracted state and national attention. Hendrichs and former colleague Julie Marthaler have made trips to other states to accept awards and describe the county's efforts to audiences.

And while the county's restorative justice coordinator can point to a wide spectrum of financial advantages to the approach, she believes there is a far more important measure of its worth: It's helping people break the cycles of addiction and delinquency that brought them to the courts and county's family services office in the first place.

"I'd get in trouble. I'd go to court. I'd do my time. I'd get out. It was the same thing over and over,'' said Dave Benson, who has used the new program.

Benson started down the traditional juvenile offender path in 2001 with his first court-ordered assessment for chemical use. From 2002 through 2010, the county spent $51,726.26 on treatment costs for Benson above those covered by his insurance.

From 2007 to 2010, the county spent $2,420 on jail costs for him, according to Hendrichs.

Benson was given the choice of going back to jail or to a restorative justice circle in 2010. After so many mandates from the courts, Benson said he jumped at this new option.

"For once I was given a choice.That's what really intrigued me,'' he said.

Today he is maintaining sobriety, is a circle volunteer, and is married to the daughter of a circle volunteer who had helped him.

While the circles were launched originally to help juvenile lawbreakers, the county started Circles of Hopes in 2010 to help those with addictions.

Melissa Helgeson, who handles chemical dependency evaluations for the county, said the success of circles at helping juvenile offenders break the cycle of repeat offenses begged the question: "Why can't we do this for people in recovery?''

Patrice Fjermestad considers the answer to that question a lifesaver for her. She began using marijuana at age 14 and then turned to methamphetamine and opiates in a span of less than a dozen years. She was arrested in 2010 for taking one of her children with her on a drug deal.

Inpatient treatment helped her find sobriety, but she credits her participation in the circle program with helping her maintain it. Being with people who understood "where she was coming from" made the difference, she explained.

"Having a genuine connection with someone is what is changing for them,'' said Helgeson of the circle process.

Fjermestad works today as an registered nurse and is a circle volunteer.

Not all of those offered the option of joining a circle accept it, and not all of those who do get involved will succeed. From 2002 to 2012 there were 77 juvenile offenders in circles, with 38 successful completions, according to records kept by Hendrichs.

For most, the circle process is more difficult and demanding than the court process they are all too familiar with, Hendrichs said. The offenders have to face community members and victims they have harmed, and they are held accountable. And, they are expected to stay with it until they resolve the harm they caused.

"You have to dig down and see inside of yourself what is going on,'' said Mike MaKarrall, a circle volunteer, of the process. "You see these kids grow from it.''

They struggle, "but all of a sudden a light will click on," said MaKarrall, who is Benson's father-in-law. "It's so rewarding to us volunteers."

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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