By Dr. Lindsey Pointer, Assistant Director for the National Center on Restorative Justice at Vermont Law School
Tyler (age 26) had been working at a local medical clinic for a couple years while he studied to become a Physician Assistant. He was well-liked in the clinic and trusted by his co-workers. After experiencing a family crisis, Tyler struggled with overwhelming grief and depression. One day at the clinic, he wrote a prescription for himself for oxycodone using Dr. Hay’s name and information, and he filled it at the supermarket King Soopers. He found that the drug numbed his pain. What followed was nearly eight months of Tyler writing new prescriptions for himself and spending nearly every night numbed by the oxycodone. Tyler described that during that time, he felt distant from his wife because he kept this habit a secret from her and everyone else in his life. Tyler saw a counselor during those months and spoke with her about his struggles, but he was unable to break the habit.
Because Dr. Hay only worked at the clinic with Tyler one day every week, Tyler was able to keep the crime hidden until a pharmacist at King Soopers, who was friends with Dr. Hay, mentioned that he had been filling a prescription for oxycodone for one of Dr. Hay’s patients for the last few months. Dr. Hay was confused because he knew he was not currently prescribing oxycodone to any of his patients. He called the clinic to get answers. At the clinic, Tyler’s manager (Madeline) asked Tyler to find the information Dr. Hay needed. At that point, Tyler decided he needed to confess what he had been doing. He called Dr. Hay back and told him the whole story. Dr. Hay advised that Tyler share what he had done with Madeline, seek addiction counseling, and inform the police.
Tyler went to the police station to confess what he had done. At this point, he was facing Felony Possession and Forgery charges and the possibility of prison time. If this case had been handled by the standard criminal justice process, Tyler may have become one of the more than 6.5 million people under the supervision of an adult correctional system in the United States, which is the world leader in the use of incarceration. This punitive response to his actions would likely have further fragmented his relationships with his wife and wider support community, prevented him from continuing to pursue his dream of becoming a Physician Assistant, and may have interfered with his ability to access effective treatment for his addiction. Additionally, his colleagues at the medical clinic would have been left with unanswered questions, fear about negative repercussions in their own professional lives, and no opportunity for the trust that had been violated to be repaired.
Instead, this case was referred to restorative justice. Restorative justice is an alternative approach to justice-making that focuses on addressing harms, needs, and obligations, with the ultimate goal of healing and putting things as right as possible. The restorative justice conference process that Tyler took part in brought together the responsible party (Tyler) and his support person (his wife), the harmed parties (Dr. Hay and Madeline), and the referring police officer, with two trained restorative justice facilitators. They discussed three central questions: (1) What happened? (2) Who was impacted and how? and (3) What is needed to repair the harm and make things right?
At the conference, the care that Tyler, Madeline, and Dr. Hay all had for each other was evident. They had invited each other over for holidays, supported each other, and considered each other family. Madeline got emotional as she described that one of the biggest impacts for her was not having Tyler at the clinic anymore and how much she missed having someone she could rely on completely. She talked about how overworked everyone at the clinic had been since he had to leave and their struggle to replace him. Dr. Hay spoke about the violation of trust and his fears about negative repercussions in his own professional life. He also spoke emotionally about his son who had struggled with addiction and eventually died from related issues, and how he cared about Tyler and wanted a better outcome for him. Tyler spoke about the internal struggle he had felt during all those months and about the support network of his wife, co-workers, and friends that he didn’t really know he had until everything came to light.
The group decided by consensus on a contract outlining what Tyler would do to repair the harm he had caused. First, Tyler committed to continuing counseling for his addiction and to forming a treatment plan that would help him recognize addiction as a life-long struggle and form strategies for using his network of support when times are difficult. The contract also included volunteering a set number of hours at the free clinic for the uninsured and underinsured that Dr. Hay runs two days a week. At the referring police officer’s suggestion, Tyler also agreed to spend time volunteering at the local Youth Center doing outdoor activities (one of Tyler’s interests and strengths) with youth, who often face their own struggles coping with family trauma in a positive way. Tyler also agreed to help Madeline with a couple projects for the clinic that he could complete remotely in order to take something off her plate. All of these contract items were intended to repair the relationships that were damaged and to position Tyler to make a healthy recovery.
The restorative justice approach allowed for a very different outcome in this case than would have been possible through standard criminal justice procedures. Rather than causing more harm to those involved through punitive sanctions, the harmed parties and responsible party had a chance to voice their needs and decide together how to repair the harm caused and make things right.
Vermont Law School is home to the National Center on Restorative Justice and is the only law school in the country to offer a Master of Arts in Restorative Justice (MARJ) degree. If you would like to learn more about this powerful philosophical shift in the approach to justice-making, we encourage you to be in touch.