Longtime efforts to make Fresno County a national model of fair and effective criminal justice got a boost thanks to an anonymous $100,000 pledge.
The donation is a matching gift to the Fresno Pacific University Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies (CPACS) and the Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) of the Central Valley, Inc. The agencies must raise a like amount to fully qualify, and had received $20,000 by July.
"This is very exciting for me," said Ron Claassen, CPACS director and founding director of Central Valley VORP. "I am hopeful that as we work on legislation that will enable Fresno County to become a model of restorative justice, the resources will become available to do it well."
The donor is a VORP supporter. "He has a passion for seeing our state be more fair and just for everyone. He wants our communities to be more peaceful and much less driven by fear. He wants people to experience shalom, the kind of peace where people are living in the right relations with each other and with God," Claassen said.
Restorative justice is a key to moving in those directions, according to Claassen. The system brings together those who suffer from crimes and those who commit them so the offender can understand the victim's loss and make financial or other restitution.
Fresno County has long been a leader in restorative justice—VORP of the Central Valley was the first VORP in California, and county courts have used the system in a limited way since 1982. State legislation will be required to make restorative justice the primary method for handling criminal cases. Imposed court decisions and incarceration would be a back-up when offenders are uncooperative or pose a threat to safety.
CPACS would oversee the project, with Claassen as administrator and a leadership committee comprising himself; Duane Ruth-Heffelbower, CPACS administrator; and Arthur Wint, professor of criminology at California State University, Fresno. There would also be an advisory committee including Douglas E. Noll, attorney and mediator; Charlotte Tilkes, jail program manager, Fresno County Sheriff's Department; Dan DeSantis, CEO of the Fresno Regional Foundation; and Phil Kader, county juvenile probation director.
National and local research has found:
- Nearly 80 percent of victims and offenders are willing to participate in a meeting when invited by a mediator.
- Those who participate in a meeting indicate a high sense of satisfaction (79 percent of victims and 87 percent of offenders) and fairness (83 percent of victims and 89 percent of offenders) with the process.
- Offenders who normally plead "not guilty" are more likely to accept responsibility for the offense.
- Victims value the participation of the families of offenders and offenders' families value the opportunity to be meaningfully involved.
- Restitution is paid at much higher rates when agreed to in a meeting as compared to being ordered by the court (30-50 percent for courts, 70-90 percent for mediated agreements).
- Offenders find it at least as demanding to make things right as to complete a punishment.
- Offenders who participate in restorative justice processes commit fewer repeat crimes, and when they do re-offend, they tend to commit less serious offenses.
When New Zealand made victim-offender meetings the primary government response in juvenile cases, in five years court use dropped by 75 percent and incarceration by 66 percent, while safety and victim satisfaction increased.
These statistics demonstrate that restorative justice is practical, effective and the logical next step for Fresno County and beyond, according to Claassen. "As leaders of this project established the first victim-offender reconciliation program in California, so now these same leaders are proposing to partner with criminal justice officials to lead the state in establishing the first county-wide restorative criminal justice system," he said.