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Read about the
Court Diversion Conference
held in November 2007.

Restoring the Bonds of Community

“When I first heard this talk about connecting people with nature, I just couldn’t see how it relates to our work in the criminal justice system… Now it’s making sense to me and it seems so obvious...”     - Director of a Court Diversion Center
With the help of Hooked on Nature, Court Diversion Programs throughout Vermont hope to add a nature component to the community-based alternative to formal court processes for certain juvenile and adult offenders.  In court diversion programs, the State’s Attorney refers cases on an individual basis.  If an offender is accepted into the program, a Review Board designs a “contract” that details specific conditions the offender must complete.  This community-based alternative (also known as ‘restorative justice’) has two aims: 1) it provides an opportunity to address the harm that a crime has caused to victims and to the community; and 2) it helps offenders avoid future criminal conduct and a permanent criminal record.

Rick Bjorn, Executive Director of Rutland County Court Diversion and Restorative Justice Center in Vermont, has a vision that goes even further than these innovative goals. He envisions contracts that give offenders a transformative experience that will help them look at things differently.  “I want to empower people to change their lives,” says Rick, and he hopes to do that by connecting offenders to experiences in nature that have special meaning for them.

Currently, contracts are tailored to the situation of each client and may include requirements to attend programs that improve skills in conflict resolution, decision-making and leadership, as well as drug and alcohol treatment, community service hours, or monetary restitution to victims for the harm they have suffered.

In order to add a nature component to the contracts, the first step is to conduct a ‘nature inventory’ during the intake process by finding out about each person’s interests in connection with nature.  Contracts would continue to be tailored to the particular needs of the offenders and their victims, but could include a wide range of activities in nature that are based on the clients’ particular interests, such as participating in a community garden, attending an outdoor painting or photography class, or going mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing or hiking with a mentor.

The goal is to design nature-based activities that combine leadership training with helping offenders develop a sense of place. Rick says, “It’s vital that everyone has a sense of belonging.”  Connecting with the natural world and finding a role in the community are key pathways to restoring an offender’s good relationship with the people and places in their lives. 

There are, of course, challenges and obstacles to implementing this vision. Many people, including people who serve on Boards of Directors of Court Diversion programs, have a fear of litigation when anyone starts to talk about taking people out in nature. This can be addressed by obtaining liability insurance to cover the additional risks of outdoor activities, but it takes time and commitment for a Board of Directors to assess a wide range of factors in order to get an appropriate insurance package. 

Also sponsored by the Foundation For Global Community

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