Aaron Smith was lost. A drug dealer and an addict, he felt like an outcast in his community. “When I saw my reflection in people’s eyes, it was somebody who was a menace to society, a drug addict. And so I was inclined to act in kind with that,” Smith said. A meeting with someone who’d lost a child to drug dealing changed him.
“To have that wall broken down by somebody who I would expect to view me that way [and have them say] ‘You’re somebody who deserves care, who deserves compassion’ — that was unbelievably impactful.”
Smith, along with Kiyanna Ambers and Yisthen Ynoa, completed a rehabilitation program and earned the opportunity to reduce their sentences for federal crimes. The Massachusetts-based RISE (Repair, Invest, Succeed, and Emerge) program gave them a second chance and helped repair, in some ways, the harm they had both experienced and caused.
“Aside from the reduction of the sentence, I just really believe that what RISE does has an impact far beyond the courtroom,” said Smith.
Ambers recently finished the program and is awaiting trial. She has gone through parenting classes and relapse prevention and she’s studying to take the GED. “The experience was heavy and tough to process,” she said. “But now I can see a future after incarceration.”
Addressing her imminent incarceration, Ambers says, “I am trying to teach my son to write letters to me. I want to show him how important it is for him to stay in contact with me.” Her 16-year-old son is the only child she is allowed to see because of what Ambers called her “wrong decisions.”
Ynoa, who began a 12 to 14-week RISE program in early 2022, lives in Lawrence, Mass., with his 12-year-old son. A single father raised by his grandparents in an often combative household, Ynoa believes that RISE helped him process his past traumas, overcome drug addiction and transform himself into a better father. “They didn’t really look at me as a criminal,” said Ynoa. “They looked at me just like a normal person.”
In 2007, Leo T. Sorokin, a federal district court judge in Massachusetts, discovered the possibilities in restorative justice. He listened as an attorney described Neo-Nazis in Oregon, who had attacked a synagogue attended by Holocaust survivors, meeting face-to-face with members of the temple to address the harm done.
“What came out of that was sort of a reconciliation,” said Sorokin. “[The offender made] amends in a way that was meaningful to them and meaningful to him. That seemed sensible as an opportunity both for people who were harmed and for the person who did the harm.”
The story inspired Sorokin, along with federal probation officer Maria D’Addieco, to start RISE. Founded in 2015, RISE provides selected offenders the chance to enter a restorative justice program that can positively impact sentencing. It’s a small rehabilitation program, but one that offers a possible solution to one of the country’s biggest problems, high incarceration rates.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were more than one million people incarcerated in the United States at the end of 2021. The imprisoned are much more likely to be people of color, with African Americans incarcerated in state prisons at nearly five times the rate of White Americans.
Despite high imprisonment rates due to “get-tough” policies, there are few signs that these policies provide rehabilitation. Recidivism statistics for the country are startling. “Within three years of their release, two out of three former prisoners are rearrested and more than 50% are incarcerated again,” according to a 2021 report from the Harvard Political Review.
The system is failing victims, too. “There were many needs that victims had that seemed unsatisfied and unmet by that. And I thought we could do more for people who were harmed,” said Sorokin.
According to the National Survey on Victims’ Views, the majority of crime victims feel that the criminal justice system is too focused on incarceration, adding that they would prefer to see more investments in prevention and treatment rather than prisons and jails.
Programs like RISE offer the possibility of meaningful change — for all parties. According to Jane Peachy, a defense attorney who represents RISE participants, the program provides structure and resources that lead to better rehabilitated citizens. “What restorative justice provides, though, I think is much deeper,” she said. “What you see is a real transformation in the way people look at accountability and their understanding of the crime that they committed.”
The RISE Program
This transformation is at the heart of RISE. The program helps defendants on supervised pretrial release work toward reconciliation and take accountability for offenses. It acknowledges harm.
Defendants must meet one of two criteria to participate: a serious history of substance abuse that contributed to their criminal charges, or a history that “reflects significant deficiencies in full-time productive activities, decision making, or prosocial peer networks.” Previous criminal charges or pending sex offender charges can make them ineligible.
To qualify for the program, defendants on pretrial release must plead guilty quickly, explained D’Addieco. Candidates are evaluated for the program by the Probation Office and a committee, led by a District Court judge, which admits qualifying defendants to the program. The committee, says D’Addieco, is composed of two magistrate judges, three district court judges, and representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Probation and the Federal Defenders Office.
Accompanied by their probation officers, accepted defendants must attend monthly hour-long meetings at the federal courthouse while sentencing is delayed for a year. But, D’Addieco cautioned, participation in the RISE program does not necessarily mean a defendant will receive a reduced sentence.
We asked Sorokin and D’Addieco how restorative justice aids helps survivors heal:
How does RISE help victims?
We asked Judge Leo T. Sorokin and federal probation officer Maria D’Addieco on how restorative justice aids helps survivors heal:
Jessica Hedges, a Boston-based defense attorney who works with participants, says that these programs will not eliminate “crime completely,” but can lead to a change. “It’s an emotional reconfiguration of people. And people may want to stop doing whatever they’re doing, stealing or dealing drugs or having guns.” She added that it is, “very different than having a judge or a prosecutor scream at you about you’re a bad person. That reconfigures people in a different way.”
Several years ago, Massachusetts surveyed the first 100 or so RISE participants. Though the sample size was too small to draw broad conclusions, D’Addieco said the data revealed that RISE participants were rearrested at a rate of 16.5 to 17 percent—dramatically below the national recidivism average of 60 to 70 percent.
Peachy emphasized that despite positive testimonials, the RISE program is not available to everyone in the justice system. “I think the criticism of the program is that not enough people are afforded the opportunity to participate in it,” said Peachy. “I’ve had clients who have applied to the program and they’ve been rejected for various reasons. I’ve had other clients who’ve been rejected because they’re not ready … and their needs aren’t considered severe enough.”
Peachy added that because the program remains exclusive to clients released in the pre-trial phase, “clients who are detained, who might need a program like this the most, they’re not given the opportunity to participate, and that’s disappointing.”
At the heart of RISE is “The Circle,” part of a partner restorative-justice initiative. Across several sessions, perpetrators of crimes can decide to meet face-to-face with surrogate victims. They share stories of trauma, loss and recovery. This is key to the program’s success: asking those convicted of crimes to emotionally engage with the harm they have caused and understand the toll of violence on survivors.
H.V., a former circle participant and now a peer mentor, asked to use a pseudonym because of his Alcoholics Anonymous membership. He moved to the United States as a 13-year-old. Struggling with difficulty adjusting and poor self-esteem, he turned to alcohol and eventually substances at a very young age. “Thankfully, I was caught,” he said, which gave him the opportunity to participate in the restorative justice program. “It made me realize that I was not a mistake, I had just made some,” he said.
Each circle is run by a facilitator. Janet Connors plays that role at many of the circles for the RISE program. In 2001, her 19-year-old son, Joel James Turner, was murdered in his Dorchester apartment during a home invasion. Facing his killers in court marked a turning point for Connors: instead of seeking vengeance, she looked for their humanity. She fought against the bureaucracy to become the first person in Massachusetts to hold a Victim-Offender Dialogue through the corrections system.
“As a survivor of homicide victims, you have to accept the unacceptable and manage the unmanageable. How do you do that … and really move forward?” Connors said, “I accept that it happened, but I’m going to do everything I can to help it not happen so much anymore.”
H.V. once asked Connors why she chose to relive one of the most traumatic moments of her life for the circle. She told him– “I do it for you.”
This was a pivotal moment in H.V.’s journey, “A stranger was willing to relive her trauma to help people,” he remembered.
It’s not easy for program participants, according to Erin Freeborn, executive director of Communities for Restorative Justice. “They’re on the hot seat and we are so conditioned to think about punishment.” She said that they worry about survivors’ anger. H.V. remembered thinking, “Is this really easier than being incarcerated?”
Through The Circle, offenders are confronted with the repercussions of their actions in a very real way.
“It was really hard knowing that I was a part of the people who had played a role in destroying their community,” said Jonathan Bermudez, a former participant of The Circle. “Just knowing somebody died because of the person, knowing that what I did could kill somebody hurt me.”
“It’s about taking accountability and, on a deeper level, appreciating the harm that your actions had on the community or on other people, on your family, on yourself,” said Peachy. “And what can be done to move forward from there, to heal, for their families to heal, and for the people who have been affected by their actions to heal.”
Restorative justice is not without limitations and critics.
In a 2016 essay for the New Mexico Law Review, M. Eve Hanan, now an associate professor of law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, wrote that restorative justice efforts assign overly-simplistic roles to “victims” and “offenders” without considering the complexities of each case. “Despite the promise of empowerment, restorative justice theory severely curtails party self-determination in several ways, suggesting that it functions more as a method of informal prosecution than as a form of mediation,” she wrote.
Hanan views restorative justice, which she said can have profound impact for both victims and defendants, as an “adjunct”—not a replacement—to the criminal justice system. “The rhetoric that restorative justice entrepreneurs, if you will, use is that this is totally separate from criminal legal systems, a true alternative,” she said. “But make no mistake: the folks who do restorative justice do it because it’s either that or court.”
Hanan says that the United States could certainly have “less prison” and suggested that prison environments could be reformed, instead of replaced, to better emphasize rehabilitation.
When asked about the criticism of the program, Smith said, “I just think it completely violates the intrinsic human nature to change. It’s a perpetuation and a continuation of a cycle of harm that ends up repeating itself.”
The Circle faces resource constraints that impede its ability to expand and enhance its services. Volunteer labor and a limited availability of judges pose significant limitations on program capacity. Beyond the two-day sessions, preparing participants and conducting reading groups require considerable resources. While the federal government provides some support, the per-case allocation falls short of meeting the program’s needs. According to McNamara, with greater funding, RISE could grow sustainably and cater to more participants, delivering reconciliation and justice to a broader range of victims and offenders.
“Awareness about such programs is of great importance,” said H.V., “especially amongst the legal circles.”
Judge Sorokin says he intends to “take stock” by gathering people involved in the program – attorneys, probation officers, judges – and ask them: what is, or is not working? And with that feedback, push the program to greater heights. “I know there’s much more to do, but I’m very pleased so far with where we are,” he said.
Explore restorative justice