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Jamie Eldridge secures funds for restorative justice grant program in Senate budget

Senator Jamie Eldridge sporting a face mask.
Senator Jamie Eldridge sporting a face mask.

BOSTON — With unanimous support from the Massachusetts Senate, state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, secured $400,000 for a restorative justice grant program in the Senate’s nearly $50 billion 2023 fiscal year budget, though the budget must still be reconciled with the House version.

An alternative to the typical judicial punishment process, “restorative justice” is a form of justice where the response to a crime is an organized meeting between the offender and victim. There, the proper means to repair any damages can be discussed.

An amendment to the budget, the grants could serve as a stable source of funding to create restorative justice programs throughout the state. Eldridge, a fierce advocate for criminal justice reform, celebrated the funding and said the Legislature’s acceptance of restorative justice is an important sign of the state’s continued shift away from incarceration.

“It’s a key indicator, as far as moving away from mass incarceration and correction spending to (crime) diversion and other community-based alternatives to the court system,” Eldridge said. “With a well-funded program, we can allow certain criminal harm to be healed and put right and not simply put people behind bars.”

Established as part of Massachusetts General Laws in 2018, restorative justice is often reserved for more minor infractions. The goal, according to Eldridge, is to have an offender take responsibility for their actions, but also better understand the harm they may have caused and discourage them from causing further harm in the future.

“Through (the restorative justice) process, which, beyond the victim, could involve community members, social workers or police, the person that committed the offense is, generally, found to have a better understanding or appreciation of what they’ve done,” he said. “But, beyond an apology, there’s also a decision on how to properly repair the community, which is vital.”

Restorative justice can also give victims an active role in the process, as opposed to the “confusion” and stress that can be brought on by typical court proceedings.

While it was established in 2018, Eldridge said Massachusetts still lacks a “robust” restorative justice system. Its demand has vastly outgrown its community-based providers and, while certain programs do exist — forms of restorative justice can be found in prisons, schools, courts and police departments — there are gaps, with a complete lack of such programs in many lower-income communities, due to an absence of funding.

Eldridge said his hope is that this “pilot program” can prove a means to address those gaps and create a system that can work for everyone in Massachusetts.

“We continue to lack a robust restorative justice system,” he said. “So the idea behind the grant program is for the state to provide necessary funds to community groups that are looking to start their own programs, especially in lower-income communities.”

In a press release regarding the secured funding, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, who Eldridge said was “very supportive” in his push for the grant program, called restorative justice a “tool for lasting change.”

“I applaud Senator Eldridge for his continued leadership and partnership on this issue,” she said in the press release. “This funding will provide Middlesex County and others across the Commonwealth the opportunity to expand access to this important programming.”

Eldridge also called the Legislature’s willingness to accept alternative forms of justice “crucial” and, as mass incarceration is reduced, said funds recouped from prison spending could be reinvested into communities or the grant program.

“We’re finally seeing a serious reduction in mass incarceration,” he said. “With that, we’re seeing prisons close — and, when that happens, when you reduce spending on corrections, that money can then be reinvested into communities.”

“The hope is, over the next couple of years, that we continue to reduce spending on corrections and the restorative justice grant program won’t have $400,000, but many millions of dollars to work with,” Eldridge said.

While funding was secured in the Senate budget, it has yet to be secured in the Legislature’s final budget; the House and Senate must now convene before a final draft can be submitted to Gov. Charlie Baker for approval.

With that in mind, Eldridge said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the funding would make it through to the final budget. Eldridge also said he is excited to see alternatives like restorative justice continue to grow and move forward.

“It’s just exhilarating,” he said. “The vast majority of communities still do not have access to restorative justice, so to have the grant program and to give those communities the opportunity to start their own restorative justice programs, it’s very exciting.”