Finger Lakes Restorative Justice Center
The Finger Lakes Restorative Justice Center (FLRJC) offers alternatives to individuals and communities for responding to crime and other harmful behaviours through restorative justice. The organization uses a multi-faceted approach to achieve this goal:
- Facilitating face-to-face encounters between victims, offenders, and community members after a crime
- Assisting other organizations and institutions to develop internal restorative justice policies and programmes
- Working with communities to respond to crime and public safety concerns through a circle process.
After a four year gestation period, Finger Lakes Restorative Justice Center (FLRJC) was incorporated in 2002 as a nonprofit serving the greater Rochester, New York region. It began under the auspices of the Judicial Process Commission, a 30-year-old nonprofit dedicated to judicial reform.
The FLRJC and a sister project, the Task Force to Reduce Violence, moved into donated office space provided by one of Rochester’s large churches. Mennonites in the area, who were in the process of constructing a meeting facility, pledged space for a permanent home for the fledgling organization.
From the beginning the organization had strong leaders who recognized that the organization had to demonstrate the principles and values it proposed. Wilbur Bontrager, a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University’s Conflict Management Program is FLRJC’s founder. Under Bontrager’s directorship, FLRJC gathered a Board of Directors, established relationships with numerous community organizations, and networked with national and international pioneers in the restorative justice field. Most importantly, he fostered the critical mass necessary to stimulate change in the way people understand and heal from crime and other acts of harm.
At the same time as FLRJC’s founding, the Rochester Police Department received a grant to implement a youth project based on the Real Justice model. Serendipitously, a new District Executive from the American Baptist Church came to Rochester with rich experience in restorative justice from the Milwaukee region. FLRJC has called on him to do conferencing trainings and take an active role in working with local judicial officials. Another coincidence was the establishment of a restorative justice component in Rochester Institute of Technology’s Center for Student Conduct and Conflict Management Services. FLRJC and RIT have together mounted an effort to encourage other colleges to include restorative justice processes in their student conduct offices.
Ties to Eastern Mennonite University were particularly important during the early years of FLRJC. Howard Zehr made visits to Rochester three times and FLRJC’s first intern was an EMU Conflict Management Studies Fulbright scholar from Pakistan who spent a summer in Rochester with his family.
Ties to local universities have been important to the flowering of FLRJC. The Board of Directors includes two professors of Criminal Justice as members. The two colleges that they represent have generously worked with FLRJC to host conferences, workshops, and seminars. The FLRJC continues to nurture relationships with area colleges by rotating their annual conference among them. Connections are also being made to two divinity schools in the area.
Like many new efforts, FLRJC struggled to get a foothold in the community. The Center has focused much of its efforts on instituting restorative justice as an alternative to court procedures. While on the one hand district attorneys, public defenders, and judges have voiced appreciation for the concept, working out the details for cases to be diverted has been long and tedious. Since last summer, the FLRJC has placed criminal justice student interns at the Rochester City Court to work with the District Attorney’s office and Public Defender’s office to screen cases. The FLRJC is currently exploring partnerships through a number of other judicial channels: the Probation Department, Drug Court, Mental Health Court, Teen Court and Juvenile Drug Court.
Despite slow progress in implementing restorative justice processes as an alternative to court hearings, the FLRJC has sparked great interest in the community. In 2004, the FLRJC began hosting an annual regional conference that attracts about 150 people. The FLRJC is increasingly being asked to make presentations to local civic, professional, and religious groups and college classes. Such interest prompted the FLRJC to initiate a Western New York Restorative Justice Coalition this year to provide support for those scattered professionals attempting to implement restorative justice.
The FLRJC’s secondary program thrust is aimed at public schools. Center volunteers have trained teachers in the use of circles and the Center regularly sends volunteers into schools for Juvenile Accountability Conferences.
Funding for FLRJC has come almost exclusively from faith groups and individuals. Many in-kind donations have also kept FLRJC afloat. Establishing a firm financial base is the biggest challenge for the FLRJC currently. Most other elements are in place for the flowering of restorative justice in the greater Rochester area.
Dr. Mary Jeanette Ebenhack