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Read about the
Court Diversion Conference
held in November 2007.
Restoring the Bonds of Community

?When I first heard this talk about connecting people with nature, I just couldn?t see how it relates to our work in the criminal justice system? Now it?s making sense to me and it seems so obvious...?     - Director of a Court Diversion Center

With the help of Hooked on Nature, Court Diversion Programs throughout Vermont hope to add a nature component to the community-based alternative to formal court processes for certain juvenile and adult offenders.  In court diversion programs, the State?s Attorney refers cases on an individual basis.  If an offender is accepted into the program, a Review Board designs a ?contract? that details specific conditions the offender must complete.  This community-based alternative (also known as ?restorative justice?) has two aims: 1) it provides an opportunity to address the harm that a crime has caused to victims and to the community; and 2) it helps offenders avoid future criminal conduct and a permanent criminal record.

Rick Bjorn, Executive Director of Rutland County Court Diversion and Restorative Justice Center in Vermont, has a vision that goes even further than these innovative goals. He envisions contracts that give offenders a transformative experience that will help them look at things differently.  ?I want to empower people to change their lives,? says Rick, and he hopes to do that by connecting offenders to experiences in nature that have special meaning for them.

Click here to listen to an interview with Rick.

Currently, contracts are tailored to the situation of each client and may include requirements to attend programs that improve skills in conflict resolution, decision-making and leadership, as well as drug and alcohol treatment, community service hours, or monetary restitution to victims for the harm they have suffered.

In order to add a nature component to the contracts, the first step is to conduct a ?nature inventory? during the intake process by finding out about each person?s interests in connection with nature.  Contracts would continue to be tailored to the particular needs of the offenders and their victims, but could include a wide range of activities in nature that are based on the clients? particular interests, such as participating in a community garden, attending an outdoor painting or photography class, or going mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing or hiking with a mentor.

The goal is to design nature-based activities that combine leadership training with helping offenders develop a sense of place. Rick says, ?It?s vital that everyone has a sense of belonging.?  Connecting with the natural world and finding a role in the community are key pathways to restoring an offender?s good relationship with the people and places in their lives. 

There are, of course, challenges and obstacles to implementing this vision. Many people, including people who serve on Boards of Directors of Court Diversion programs, have a fear of litigation when anyone starts to talk about taking people out in nature. This can be addressed by obtaining liability insurance to cover the additional risks of outdoor activities, but it takes time and commitment for a Board of Directors to assess a wide range of factors in order to get an appropriate insurance package. 

An even more fundamental challenge is the huge cultural shift away from outdoor activities for people of all ages, and most dramatically for children and adolescents.  The bad news is that this shift has occurred more or less rapidly without people noticing.  The good news is that when they do notice (or have it pointed out), many people immediately see how this could be at the root of various social and behavioral problems.  In order to get people thinking about the situation, Rick made a presentation to the Vermont Association of Court Diversion Programs.  Hooked on Nature then provided 100 copies of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv so that Rick could distribute the book to people throughout this statewide coalition. 

As a result in November 2007, Executive Directors of Court Diversion programs in all 14 Vermont counties, along with a number of Vermont agencies and programs who are invested in helping kids connect with the natural world, and Governor Jim Douglas participated in a conference called Hooked on Nature: Building Leadership and Community in Vermont.  The conference brought together people working at all levels of restorative justice to discuss the vision and strategies for including nature-based activities in court diversion contracts.  The participants focused their creativity and experience on how to overcome the obstacles and challenges. You can read more about the conference on our blog.

Some counties have already been experimenting with nature-based projects.   For example, Lamoille County in Vermont now offers mountain biking and other adventurous activities as part of their court diversion contracts.   The conference will be an opportunity to share information about different initiatives, how people perceive the value of them, and what is needed to pilot these projects in additional settings

Hooked on Nature will continue to work with Rick and the Vermont Association of Court Diversion Programs to develop best practices that will enable trip leaders, mentors and caseworkers to help offenders develop leadership skills and explore their role in their community through a wide range of activities in nature. As the best practices evolve, they will be disseminated to other court diversion
programs nationwide.

Rick Bjorn is very encouraged by the progress since he made the first presentation in March 2007.  As an Executive Director of the Court Diversion program in another county said to him, ?When I first heard this talk about connecting people with nature, I just couldn?t see how it relates to our work in the criminal justice system.  Now it?s making sense to me and it seems so obvious.?

Although Rick knows there are significant hurdles to overcome, his commitment is fueled by his own experience of turning to nature at times of great personal stress. ?I could imagine ways that being in touch with nature can help with combating most of the ills in our society.  But right now I can see immediate concrete ways that a connection with nature can help offenders by creating more skills to deal with stress and get connected to things that make them feel good about themselves and about their community.  So much crime occurs because people feel under terrible stress.  They feel isolated and they don?t know how to cope.?

According to Rick, Hooked on Nature?s role has been critical in launching this initiative in Vermont.  He says, ?They?ve been a guiding force in helping me influence the criminal justice system and in giving me the support I needed. Hooked on Nature also sent me to conferences which allowed me to meet people, get more education and gain insight.  I understand a lot more about why it?s important to implement these ideas in the criminal justice system and I?m able to articulate it better so that others can get involved.  I now feel confident to say that a program that combines nature, leadership and community is the best combination to keep people out of the court system.?