Lucinda Brown to retire, leaving legacy of restorative justice

  • Lucinda Brown Recorder staff/Richie Davis

Recorder Staff
Published: 6/20/2018 6:55:13 PM

Twenty-five years ago, the Franklin County Court Futures Task Force had a vision for justice in 2022: mediation and other forms of “alternative dispute resolution,” including a community-involved “restorative justice” system that would do more than decide guilt or innocence and mete out punishment.

That vision has come along way since, and now, the woman who has overseen the system “where the community’s voice can be brought into determining the outcome of a case” is retiring. Over nearly 20 years, the program has involved more than 120 volunteers reviewing roughly 1,100 cases in as many as 20 settings around the county.

Lucinda Brown volunteered in 1994 and was hired in 1995, right around the time the state Trial Court set up Franklin County as a laboratory for criminal justice ideas. Now, she is technically the Trial Court’s “community relations coordinator” in Franklin County, where she’s run the state’s only restorative justice program and region’s two drug courts. She works with defendants referred by the courts to the program as a condition of probation.

“I’m a one-of-a-kind animal,” she said.

Adapted from a “circle sentencing” approach used in Canada’s Yukon territory, restorative justice gives defendants a chance to understand the effects of their mistakes and learn from them.

The idea was tossed around in meetings here in December 1996 and, Brown said, it caught on because it addressed how to involve the public in showing how an offense “affected individuals, relationships and whole community.”

“How do we help the person responsible to meet his or her obligations to repair the harm? The court didn’t have that tool,” Brown said.

She explains, “A true justice system would put the people harmed front and center and find ways to make them whole. The obligation of the person responsible would come second. What we’ve found is that the people responsible for wrongdoing often have been victimized themselves, and no one’s supported them through that experience.”

A casual observer of a restorative justice session “might think this is just soft on crime, enabling people,” said Brown. “But part of our methodology’s been that you can’t expect empathy from someone who’s never received empathy. Sometimes you have to go back and listen to that individual’s story and unpack that to have them think about what would have helped them feel better, and have community members say, ‘You shouldn’t have had to go through that. That ends up being a very powerful turning point for many … Once you’re there, you can work with them to work with the person who’s been harmed to say, ‘What’s going to make this better for you?’”

Wid Perry of Greenfield, who has volunteered to sit on the panels since 2000 along with teachers, nurses and volunteers who have served jail time, said, “It’s about giving people second chances and helping them find ways to change their lives. We’re able to offer the other side, another perspective. And the thing that’s amazed me a lot of times is when people say, ‘I never thought of that.’”

Perry works for the state Department of Public Health and said he’s able to translate his 23 years of Navy experience into an ethic about discipline.

“It’s amazing to see how forgiving victims can be. When you narrow it down to one-on-one, it’s fascinating to watch the human spirit that’s still there,” he said.

Anne Diemand Bucci of Wendell, who’s volunteered since the program’s outset, said healing occurs when people understand the repercussions of their actions.

“It’s like dropping a stone into calm water and watching the ripples and far reaching effects of that, after we’ve been … feeling many times like we’re knocking our heads against the wall and not doing anything but we hope just planting seeds, and there’s like an ‘aha’ moment. They’d thought there was this nameless victim, and ‘I was just having fun out with my buddies, smashing windows of people’s cars .. we were bored,’ to understanding the effect of their actions. One of the most powerful things is when you can bring the parties together – how incredibly sweet and powerful it could possibly be. To me, that was one of the things that’s made it worth doing all those years.”

Then there’s the satisfaction of running into former defendants years later who’ve thanked panel members for helping them straighten out.

One case, Bucci recalled, involved a single mother of two teen-age daughters who bought alcohol for her 13-year-old and then temporarily lost custody when the girl passed out in the center of town from alcohol poisoning. “By the time she graduated, both daughters were back living at home, and she ended up getting a job as manager of a factory and no longer allowed alcohol in the home. It had totally changed her life.”

The groups listen to the defendants’ stories without being judgmental, strive to convey that the offense showed an error of judgment that doesn’t need to define their lives and help them devise a plan for dealing with the situation if it ever recurs.

“To me, she was like our guiding star,” Bucci said of Brown. “I feel so privileged as I watch Lucinda ask a question to draw the person more out in a really gentle way. She’s amazing.”

The incidents, mostly nonviolent and a minority of which involve adults, have changed from the vandalism, graffiti and property-damage cases that dominated restorative justice in the early years, Brown and the volunteers said. The opioid crisis has yielded more “crimes motivated by desperation,” said Brown: larceny of credit cards, identity theft, breaking and entering, as well as possession of illegal substances.

“Those cases don’t lend themselves to restorative justice in the court’s time frame,” she said. “If someone’s new to court imposed, coerced recovery, it’s a good six months before they have the capacity to understand the impact of what they’ve done, and it may be even longer. There’s a healing process people have to go through, getting off medication. It takes a long time for brains to heal, for people to start to feel things again because their systems are so suppressed they don’t feel things. You can’t ask people to have empathy if they’re not able to do that yet.”

Orange District Court Justice David Ross added, “Restorative justice has been a critical element for us to be available in sentencing. It offers a real opportunity for people to come to grips with what they’ve done, to examine it in a critical but caring atmosphere. It has great worth.” He said he’s made clear to the chief justices of the District Court and Trial Court that the program has been invaluable. “Both were immediately supportive to find someone to jump into (Brown’s) shoes.”

Marisa Hebble, the original coordinator of the Franklin County Opioid Task Force and now coordinator of the Massachusetts Community Justice Project, said, “Lucinda’s work has been so important in Franklin County. It’s kind of this invisible, collaborative work that’s actually so critical.”

In fact, said Hebble, the work that Brown did with Reinventing Justice originators Judge Thomas Merrigan and the late Diane Esser “was the concrete foundation of a house on which all this collaboration was built. The opioid task force really wouldn’t have been a thing without all those years of investing in collaboration.”

She credits Brown’s “compassionate accountability,” at the intersection of criminal justice and behavioral health, as being ahead of its time and essential in the statewide work she is doing to make the criminal justice system more responsive.

“Lucinda has been laying the foundation for years,” she said. “She was dismantling stigma before we even thought about it. This ripple effect goes so far and wide.”

Brown, who assigns offenders in the program homework after each session, usually concludes with a final one: to look in their lives and identify a time or action about which they’re proud. They can also imagine a goal for themselves.

“For a lot of people, once they understand the harm they’ve done, they feel really terrible,” she said. “It’s important that we don’t just say ‘goodbye,’ but help them figure out what to do with that. This allows people to realize we have a whole lifetime that can define us.”




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