On December 27, County Executive Mike Hein cut the ceremonial ribbon to open the new $3.2 million Ulster County Restorative Justice and Empowerment Center at 733 Broadway in Midtown Kingston.
Hein began by thanking his task force for providing him with invaluable advice and praised the Ulster County Legislature for fully supporting the center.
Hein said the project came in under budget and on time; thanking all of the contractors for transforming a relatively small space into the most technologically advanced structure in Ulster County.
Hein said reading a disturbing statistic is what propelled him into action.
“Almost 85 percent of people born into poverty die in poverty, that was a chilling number. The idea that we are the kind of country, whether we like it or not, that has incarcerated a larger percentage of our citizens per capita than any other country in the world; that system hasn’t worked,” he said.
Hein said the Ulster County center is aimed at creating more varied opportunities in a system that all too often simply locks up the youth of the community. He said they will face head-on key elements that face the entire country; generational poverty, injustice, discrimination, “and a whole host of other issues that are avoided because they are scary but the truth of the matter is this; it is not about that, it’s about are we fundamentally committed to a just society for everyone. If we are, then this is the kind of place that I hope is replicated across the entire country.”
Hein said this is a hopeful moment that can help not only at- risk youths and their parents, but over age and under credited individuals obtain their high school diploma, secure jobs for those in need, help with housing issues, provide on-site substance abuse screening and assistance, “and talking about being honest about big picture challenges.”
Hein posed the most fundamental question.
“Why do we have to wait until justice is involved, can’t we acknowledge the truth, which is that we can head these things off. There are often screaming warning signs in this process if we’re just willing to recognize them and act and build support that can actually work. We can be a compassionate, caring community that I know we all are and we can reach that potential. So helping at-risk youth not find their way into the system is a critical part of this place.”
The center will have a staff of about ten professionals who will be able to provide judges and probation officers with more choices aimed at helping struggling youths though their difficulties, whatever they may be. There will also be opportunities for supervised face to face meetings where the victim can tell the accused about why their behavior was so hurtful to them.
Kim Mapes, who is the Director of the new Restorative Justice Center, said in the coming weeks she will be working out all of the logistics but, “mostly making sure the child and the family have every opportunity to grow and prevent them from going into the justice system.” She said depending on the nature of the crime, a youth would be referred to the new center from either the Probation Department or from the Family Court system, with the goal of reducing the rate of recidivism.
Mapes is looking forward to running the center.
“I have a passion for children and to help them and give them every opportunity to succeed. If they don’t have anybody in their corner, they’ll know they have one person in their corner and that would be me,” she said.
Rashida Tyler, who is the Ulster County Director of Research and Operational Programming, researched what the center was going to provide to the public.
“The community has been involved in everything that the center is about from its inception, from the design, in understanding the programming areas and understanding the community’s needs,” she said.
Tyler said when surveying the community it was determined that a mentoring program was needed as well as transportation support and child care.
“It really became apparent that we just couldn’t work with just one youth, their family structure is something that’s very important to making sure that the youth can have a fair share at a positive future,” she said.
Ulster County Legislator Herb Litts [R-Lloyd/Plattekill] said the idea for the center began 16 months ago.
“It will fill a great need. Hopefully, it will stop the school to prison pipeline, which is very evident, and turn around our justice system because there are so many people who go through the system and return to the system; that cycle needs to end.” he said. “I think this is a step in the right direction and can influence the young people before they start down a path that is very hard to return from. I think with mentoring and some community service, the children can understand and realize there is a better path in life than what they’ve started to take.”
Andrew Kossover, who heads the Ulster County Public Defender’s Office, said the Restorative Justice model puts less of an emphasis on punishment and more upon understanding.
“It serves the victims and the accused much better; it’s a more successful program and it’s a more civilized program,” he said.
Kossover pointed out that throwing people into the criminal justice system, and the impact that has on the victims, “sometimes leaves all parties displeased and unfulfilled without closure. This restorative justice allows the message to get across, it improves conduct and I think it has a better remediation effect than simple punishment where the accused then resents the system, resents perhaps the person they victimized for complaining about them. This is a chance for true understanding, true processing of why their conduct was not appropriate or permissible in the first instance. Instead of alienating those young people in crisis, it embraces them and says let’s get them back into the mainstream, let’s not just separate them so that all they do is continue their conduct or get worse. I am pleased that Ulster County and our County Executive have taken on this initiative because this is a progressive model that seems to be working and I know that other jurisdictions and New York will also be getting behind Restorative Justice.”