BRATTLEBORO—The Brattleboro Community Justice Center has a new executive director, Mel Motel, who began leading the organization on Aug. 23.
Grant-funded by the Department of Corrections, the BCJC provides Reparative Parole Panels for people who have committed nonviolent offenses, offers prisoner reentry Circles of Support and Accountability, and conducts mediation and training services.
“With just three part-time staff, the BCJC relies on nearly 60 trained volunteers to deliver these programs, which have a proven track record of reducing pressure on the court system, reducing incarceration, and reducing recidivism,” according to a news release.
“I’m responsible for supporting all actions of the organization, including managing the staff and financials, working on development, maintaining relationships with other organizations in the community, and developing and moving forward the vision of restorative justice,” said Motel, who replaced Darah Kehnemuyi upon his retirement.
“My life has taken many twists and turns that brought me back here,” said Motel, who finds herself back at the center after having worked there more than 10 years ago.
According to the Centre for Justice & Reconciliation, an international organization that develops and promotes restorative justice around the world, restorative justice “views crime as more than breaking the law — it also causes harm to people, relationships, and the community. So a just response must address those harms as well as the wrongdoing. If the parties are willing, the best way to do this is to help them meet to discuss those harms and how to about bring resolution.”
“I’m entering this organization at a time of enthusiasm for restorative justice,” said Motel, who acknowledges that part of her role is to advance restorative justice beyond the immediate community, addressing a fundamental question: “How do we be a model here for the rest of the state?” she said.
To that end, she will represent the BCJC when working with officials from Vermont’s 19 other community justice centers, said Motel, whose path to her new workplace followed a somewhat-circuitous route.
A native of the Chicago area, Motel moved to Brattleboro in 2006 to participate in AmeriCorps VISTA, a civil society program similar to Peace Corps, but for domestic organizations.
Motel’s first assignment: to work for a year at the BCJC offices.
“It’s a little surreal,” said Motel, “because I look at the Rolodex on my desk, and I find my handwriting.”
When that contract ended, Motel stayed at the BCJC for another year to coordinate the organization’s prisoner re-entry program.
In this program, the BCJC partners with the Vermont Department of Corrections to repair the relationships damaged by a person committing a felony: between the person who committed the crime — the “core member” — and the victim, between the victim and the community, and between the core member and the community.
Two years after starting with the BCJC, the funding ran out on Motel’s position, but she realized she wanted “to keep doing this work in some kind of way.”
After leaving the BCJC, Motel was hired as an assistant editor by Prison Legal News, a website and monthly magazine then based in Brattleboro.
Focusing on kids
When Motel was attending college in Madison, Wis., she mentored youth whose parents were incarcerated.
“I saw the impact that having a parent in prison had on kids’ lives,” she said. “Kids who had that, and other traumatic experiences, were acting out in school. And the schools dealt with that behavior by punishment. Now, some of those kids are in jail.
“I thought, ‘The earlier we can start using restorative practices for harm, the more we can keep kids out of jail.’”
This experience inspired Motel to pursue a master’s degree in teaching from Marlboro College.
That led to her founding the Just Schools Project in 2013. “I primarily did restorative practice trainings in middle- and high schools throughout New England. I helped schools set up programs, I trained teachers to use restorative processes in the classroom, and I trained students to be facilitators,” said Motel.
“Say a kid breaks a rule,” Motel explained. “The principal would say, ’You can either go to detention or an after-school circle where we’ll talk about what happened here and what’s going on in your life. We’ll see and know each other.’”
“We haven’t replaced detention with a ’touchy-feely’ thing,” said Motel, who noted her work achieved the desired results: students who were breaking the rules changed their behavior.
“They stopped cutting class, they kept coming back [to school], and these kids got more engaged” with their school community, “because someone finally sees them,” she said.
Educators and administrators “are realizing punishment doesn’t work for their students. Restorative justice in schools is changing outcomes for kids,” she said.
“Schools that have implemented restorative practices have seen increased school connectedness, graduation rates, student engagement, and academic performance, as well as decreased suspensions, expulsions, racial disparities, and more,” Motel wrote on the Just Schools website.
Restorative justice has changed since her first stint with the BCJC, Motel said.
“It’s grown as a movement. A lot more people — and state agencies — are willing to throw their support behind something different,” she said.
“People who don’t necessarily identify as progressive see the fiscal effects of incarceration and don’t want to spend that much tax money on prisons,” said Motel, calling it “a multi-partisan issue at this point.”
Numerous studies point to a lack of causation between more — and longer — prison sentences and violent crime.
In a 2017 report, Don Stemen, an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Loyola University, aggregated crime data and statistics and concluded: “Increased incarceration has no effect on violent crime and may actually lead to higher crime rates when incarceration is concentrated in certain communities.”
Instead, he noted, policymakers can reduce crime “by investing in more effective and efficient crime reduction strategies that seek to engage the community, provide needed services to those who are criminally involved, and begin to address the underlying causes of crime.”
Motel attributed the rise of the restorative justice movement in part to political activists and community organizers — and to the entertainment industry.
The Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, Motel said, “humanized incarcerated people — and millions of people watch that.”
For many years, Motel “has known through friendships and work a number of people who were incarcerated. It’s helped my understanding and belief that we need to do something different,” she said.
“I bring a vision of a restorative community into schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces,” said Motel, who said her goal is to bring a “deeper presence [for restorative justice] into this community.”
“I keep thinking, ‘I’ve come full circle,’” said Motel.