A restorative justice program is gaining momentum in Cook County, with some help from prison inmates in Moose Lake.

The Cook County Minnesota Restorative Justice project, which has addressed eight cases since forming a year ago, will on Jan. 1 become a program within the North Shore Health Care Foundation, the nonprofit announced in a news release this week.

In the short term, that entails two $2,500 grants to support the all-volunteer project, said Valerie Marasco Eliasen, executive director of the health care foundation.

But the project also received a $5,000 donation last month from the Moose Lake Correctional Facility’s restorative justice program. Inger Andress, who chairs the Cook County project, said the inmates had raised the money from pizza sales within the prison.

“It was just very humbling and honoring at the same time,” Andress said about the presentation she and Cook County Attorney Molly Hicken made to about 70 inmates at the prison on Nov. 18. “It was just an incredible experience.”

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Restorative justice is a community-based approach to “resolving harms and crimes,” said Ted Lewis, senior associate and trainer at the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, which is based at the University of Minnesota Duluth. It gives offenders, victims and community members a say in how the harm is resolved, based more on reparations than on a prescribed punishment for a broken law.

Versions of the program exist in many places, including St. Louis, Carlton and Pine counties. Although it’s in its baby steps in Cook County, its roots go deep, Andress said. Steve Borud had been advocating for the idea for a long time.

Borud was a probation officer for 32 years in Cook County before moving over to St. Louis County in May 2017. In a separate phone interview, he said he took a weeklong training in restorative justice in the 1990s and thought it was a good fit for Cook County.

“I realized that in a small community like Cook County, we were all going to live with each other all the time,” Borud said. “And so when somebody gets offended against, it starts to ripple out within the community.”

That makes it all the more important to try to restore relationships, Borud said.

“We're not talking about strangers here,” he said. “And so it really was a perfect crucible for introducing restorative justice.’

Hicken and victim witness coordinator Leah Ekstrom were enthusiastically on-board, said Andress, a leadership consultant who lives in Lutsen.

Borud brought in Lewis, who has led three training sessions in Grand Marais over the past three years. Lewis is impressed by what he has seen.

“There is a culture up there of people that really want to invest in the health of the community,” he said, adding that Hicken’s support has been a vital factor. “When you get buy-in from the system and you have good community support, you’ve got a great foundation.”

The program has 22 volunteers, Andress said. Referrals come from the courts, from probation or from law enforcement, sometimes even before charges are filed. The majority of the cases so far have involved juveniles.

The process is for volunteers to meet separately with the parties involved and then moderate a face-to-face meeting.

It doesn’t always go smoothly, Andress said, but all eight of the cases referred to restorative justice volunteers have been resolved successfully.

“We just had two offenders who are both victims of each other and both offenders to each other,” she said. “It took a couple of months to just get each party to a point where they could meet face to face. And it was pretty powerful when the healing happened. The magic happened in the last 15 minutes.”

The Moose Lake Correctional Facility, meanwhile, had developed a restorative justice program of its own, Andress said.

Such programs have been well-received in prisons, Lewis said. They’re in place at Northeast Regional Corrections Center and Arrowhead Regional Corrections as well as Moose Lake. They provide inmates the opportunity to reflect on their thinking patterns, develop empathy and understand the roots of their negative behavior.

“If you think about it, most offending comes out of people’s own backstories of victimization,” Lewis said.

Andress said she heard about the Moose Lake money from the Cook County Violence Prevention Center, which had received grants from them in the past.

The center’s director contacted Andress and told her, “We believe that the restorative justice program would benefit greatly by applying for this instead of us this year,” Andress related.

The support of a health foundation might not seem like an obvious fit for a justice program. But Eliasen said the foundation’s board determined that it did play into one of its priorities, which is children’s mental health and substance abuse.

“Our board really felt that there is a correlation for youth health and well-being to the restorative justice program,” she said.