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From volunteer to director

Darah Kehnemuyi takes the helm of Brattleboro Community Justice Center, which offers a fresh approach to crime and punishment — and provides practical measures to helping convicted criminals re-enter society successfully

BCJC is seeking more volunteers. To learn more, visit the center’s website at or call 802-251-8142.

BRATTLEBORO—“Overlooking everything is a lot different than being a volunteer,” says Darah Kehnemuyi, the new executive director of the Brattleboro Community Justice Center.

Maintaining the reports required by the center’s various grant funders, for example.

The center’s prisoner re-entry programs are some of the programs subsidized by money the justice center receives from the state through the federal Second Chance Act of 2007, signed into law the following year.

Tucked away on the third floor of the Municipal Center on Main Street, the BCJC has steadily worked to repair the harm done to individuals and society by crime. The center also works with people who committed crime and who are seeking to re-enter society and make amends.

Why? According to Kehnemuyi, the community is safer when all its citizens are welcomed and can meet their basic needs.

Six weeks into the job, Kehnemuyi feels relaxed. He’s volunteered for the organization for approximately nine years. It is familiar to him.

After his predecessor, Larry Haims, retired and moved back to Maine, Kehnemuyi came out of retirement (all three years of it) to take the position.

“I really enjoyed retirement,” he said.

So why did Kehnemuyi apply for this position?

He shakes his head.

“If I was 30 years old I’d probably give you a better answer,” he says, laughing. “It’s not for the money.”

But on a more serious note, Kehnemuyi adds that he saw a need at the center that he was more than happy to try and meet.

The center conducted two rounds of interviews, said Kehnemuyi, who also served on the initial hiring committees.

After a candidate declined the center’s job offer, Town Manager Peter Elwell reopened the hiring process. With Haims only days away from his retirement date, Kehnemuyi applied for the position.

Mending society’s torn fabric

Kehnemuyi explains the difference between the judicial system and restorative justice. In most cases, the justice system sees a harm, and it punishes. Restorative justice, in contrast, takes the stance that crime tears a hole in “the social fabric.”

“How do we mend that tear?” is the question restorative justice asks, Kehnemuyi says.

According to Kehnemuyi, restorative justice asks four basic questions:

• Who was harmed?

• What was the nature of the harm?

• How do you fix the harm?

• How can we keep the harm from happening again?

The BCJC runs a number of restorative justice programs that range from helping neighbors mediate conflict to pre-charging misdemeanors that happen before the courts are involved, to prisoner re-entry programs.

Most of the people the BCJC works with are referred to the center through local police departments or the State’s Attorney’s office.

Not all crimes need resolutions through the court system, Kehnemuyi says. But, he adds, people who receive an order to complete a restorative justice program and don’t will return to court for sentencing.

Helping people re-enter society

Kehnemuyi works with two co-workers at the BCJC. Jackie Trepanier, reparative justice panel coordinator, also works with mediations and court diversions. She was out of the office the day of Kehnemuyi’s interview.

James Cecere, the re-entry specialist, laughs easily and jokes a lot. Yet this laughter circles the very serious nature of his work.

Landlords like working with the people going through the center’s re-entry programs, Cecere says, because since his clients are still under the court’s watch, they have incentives to stay on the straight and narrow.

One such incentive? If they lose their housing, they could go back to jail.

“Our guys pay their rent,” Cecere says.

He remembers dropping a newly released felon who had just served 18 years off at Hannaford Supermarket to grocery shop.

“I’ll be back in an hour,” Cecere told him.

An hour later, Cecere remembered, he returned to find the gentleman standing in the exact spot. He couldn’t remember what he liked to eat.

“Even though they don’t have a disability, they have a disability,” Cecere observes.

Another released prisoner, a veteran, needed medical care for a spine injury. Cecere’s first thought was to get him enrolled in the VA Health Care system.

The first snag was the man no longer had identification. On a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles, Cecere learned the parolee couldn’t get a state identification without a Social Security card.

Complications arose, however, with getting the Social Security card.

Finally, Cecere recalls, a woman at the VA obtained the parolee’s medical discharge papers, which qualify as a form of identification.

From courtroom to alternative justice

“My work of 30 to 35 years was as a trial attorney,” Kehnemuyi says of his previous career. He mostly worked as an attorney. Mostly as a public defender. Mostly in Maryland.

When Kehnemuyi and his wife Sora Friedman moved to Vermont, he received his license to practice law in the state. He worked as a public defender and served on multiple nonprofit boards, such as Rescue Inc.

He said he turned to the BCJC after days spent in the courtroom watching person after person get charged for violating parole — yet only rarely seeing these same people get charged for committing new offenses.

Instead, they’d go back to the court because they had missed a meeting with their parole officer or missed a rehabilitation session.

“It’s actually a domino thing,” Kehnemuyi says. People lose their job, so they don’t have money to pay for their cars. They lose their cars and can’t get a ride to their rehab group. Then they get hauled back before a judge for violating parole.

“This is really stupid,” Kehnemuyi remembers thinking.

So he looked for an alternative to the court system and found the BCJC. “It’s a good thing to help when people need to be helped,” he says.

‘Orders of magnitude’ fewer people re-offend

One of the center’s re-entry programs is Circles of Support and Accountability (COSAs), based on a Canadian model. While the model started as a way to reduce re-offending by people charged with sex crimes, the BCJC uses the model for all prisoner re-entry.

The center ran nine COSAs in the past 18 months. The reparative justice panels saw approximately 45 people last year.

The statewide motto for the Vermont COSA program is “No more victims,” Kehnemuyi says: Society is safer when people leave prison in a healthy, productive way that helps them find housing, jobs, and a strong community.

The COSA process starts before the person returning to the community — who BCJC calls “the core member” — leaves prison.

The core member meets with three to five trained volunteers while still at the facility. Meetings continue after the core member returns to the community.

Along with supporting the core member’s reintegration to society, COSAs also aim to increase community safety. The volunteers hold the core members accountable to their re-entry plan, help them manage daily living, and help them develop a relapse prevention plan.

Finally, the COSA volunteers help the core member understand how past criminal behavior harmed the victim, community, friends, family, and him- or herself. COSAs can also help the core member make amends to anyone hurt by the crime.

According to Cecere, helping integrate people back into society is time consuming and must happen step by step.

“And each one has a different hiccup,” he says.

BCJC was the first of its kind in Vermont, Kehnemuyi points out; now, it’s one of 20 similar justice centers.

When asked how many people who go through re-entry programs reoffend, Kehnemuyi answers, “Orders of magnitude less.”

“It’s a huge reduction in recidivism” between people who have gone through a re-entry program like COSAs and people who haven’t, Kehnemuyi says.

In general, it costs less to fund justice centers like Brattleboro’s than to fund jails, he continues.

According to Kehnemuyi’s “seat of the pants calculations,” justice centers may save the states thousands of dollars per person compared to keeping someone in a jail cell.

As he begins his work, Kehnemuyi anticipates renewing or strengthening the center’s existing programs rather than starting new ones at this point.

The Citizen Advisory Board is one program that will receive additional attention. Kehnemuyi would like the panel to become more active. He would also like the center to do more mediation.

In the coming weeks, he plans to assess the center’s programs and dust off the center’s bylaws and memorandum of understanding with the town to see if they need updating.

That will let him determine “what needs continued energy,” he notes.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #326 (Wednesday, October 7, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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