Nobody in his or her right mind would want to mess with David Saunier. The 6'5" 43-year-old coordinator towers over criminals and law-abiders alike, his potentially intimidating presence tempered by his quiet manner. But those who get to know him often find another reason to quake in their boots.
Twenty-some years after graduating from Charlottesville High School, Saunier finds himself back in his hometown heading up a new initiative to substitute direct reparations for jail time.
Dubbed the Central Virginia Restorative Justice Program, the effort is based on common sense– but not of the go-to-your-room (jail) style of punishment.
"You can't expect someone to follow community mores if you expel them from the community," explains Saunier.
Break a window? Steal something? Well, get a job and pay for a replacement.
"It's what your parents made you do when you screwed up as a kid," he says.
Saunier says that offenders often justify their actions by relying on bland arguments and stereotypes, a behavioral pattern that's hard to sustain when they're facing the victim head-on.
"If you're just held accountable to the state, it's kind of an abstract accountability," says Saunier. But with restorative justice, "it's not like them against the state or them against the man, it's them against the lady down the street."
The process starts with "support and accountability conferences" in which victims and offenders meet. Don't expect a friendly potluck, though–- Saunier seems to be suggesting that his program is less flower power than Robocop.
"People sometimes think it's a soft response, but it's not at all," he says. "Victims and community and parents are often pretty enthusiastic because they're participating, but it's hard for offenders to go face-to-face."
The meetings are foremost a way to address any healing needs of victims, but they can also help remorseful offenders who see themselves on the cusp of a long and tragic career in the legal system.
At the end of every meeting, a plan of repair is mapped out. Then it's passed along to a judge for approval, after which it can serve as part of a sentence or even lead to the charges being dropped.
So far, all cases in Saunier's program have come from the juvenile courts. But with an 85 percent compliance rate, Saunier wants to bring that success to adults in the near future.
"What really matters is the harm, and that means you have to start with the victim," says Howard Zehr, co-director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University and a mentor to Saunier.
"The principles that restorative justice draws on are age-old," says Saunier. "In the wake of a crime, there are victim, family, and offender needs that need to be taken care of. The idea is that if you've been affected by an incident, you should have a chance to play a role in what happens."
PHOTO BY LAUREN BROOKS