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Neighborhood Reconciliation Services celebrates 15 years of conflict resolution

Becky Campbell • Oct 28, 2017 at 10:21 PM

When the guest speaker arrived at an event to honor Johnson City Juvenile Court Judge Sharon Green, the honoree jokingly said she was glad the speaker had laryngitis.

For people who know Green, it makes perfect sense, because she’s quick to shy away from the spotlight as well as attention for her highly praised methods of implementing justice. That’s not to say everyone who appears before Green walks away happy, but those who work closely with her knows she does her best to provide the most effective plan in child and family cases.

Green and that guest speaker, UT School of Law professor and former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Penny White, got a good laugh when White told the judge she had laryngitis. “Good,” Green said. But it didn’t keep White from her speech to honor the judge. The event was also to celebrate the 15th birthday of Neighborhood Reconciliation Services Inc. It’s a nonprofit dispute-resolution agency often used by Green as a form of restorative justice.

White spoke about the mission of the Neighborhood Reconciliation Services and its role in restorative justice, which is a method in which an offender pays back to the victim. For centuries, justice has been instilled in punitive measures, but in recent years, organizations like NRS “have been the primary force of returning us to the idea of restorative justice. I think that’s step one in moving us toward a more humane court system.”

Step two, White said, is getting government leaders to understand the importance of restorative justice.

“All of us can, in addition to volunteering for organizations like this, encourage our government leaders to alter their thinking about crime and punishment. and to shift their thinking from punishment to restoration. We need our community leaders to know that they cannot continue to answer the same questions with the wrong answers.

“It is not showing any signs of improvement. We need to engage our leaders in a type of new conversation (about) what type of justice we want as a society and about type of justice we think will give us all a more peaceful, tranquil and satisfying existence,” White said. 

Restorative justice, such as what Neighborhood Reconciliation Services offer, does work. Green uses those services in her courtroom as an alternative to punitive measures when a case fits the criteria to go that route. It’s that work that NRS wanted to recognize while at the same time celebrate 15 years in this community.

“In juvenile court, the goal when a young person is charged with a delinquent offense is to treat and rehabilitate that youth. The goal is not punishment,” Green said. She told several stories about cases she used reconciliation methods for an offender and victim to work out the problem that caused them to be in court.

“There are a lot of options we have available for treating and rehabilitating young people ... mental health treatment, it might be an anti-shoplifting class, it might be a program Frontier Health has called Developing Moral Character (and) a lot young people who appear before me, I require them to do community service hours ... to pay back to the community the harm they’ve done to the community.”

In a recent case, Green ordered a 12-year-old to perform 15 hours of community service. Because of his age, he couldn’t do that work at a nonprofit agency so she allowed him to do it for an elderly relative. When he returned to court, Green asked him how it made him feel.

“He paused, and I thought ‘Oh no, never ask a question you don’t know the answer to.’ But he said, ‘It made me feel like I ought to do it more,’ ” she said.  “That’s what it’s all about.”

Neighborhood Reconciliation Services “gives me another tool, another option to use for young people in certain situations,” White said. She most often uses the service in situations involving one-on-one offenses with no serious injuries. Getting those kids, and their parents, at the same table to work out the issue on their own, but with a facilitator, to prevent the negativity surrounding those offenses.

White said if she could replace one word in the dictionary with Green’s picture, it would be the word grace.

“There are some people we get a chance to know in life that if we get the chance to rewrite Webster’s dictionary with pictures, we would just place that person’s picture at that word. They so embody and exemplify a particular word, the essence of the word, that they could replace all the definitions for that word. In my mind, there is a word I have always thought of since I started practicing law here in Johnson City in 1981 when I think of Judge Green. That word is grace.”

White has known Green as a colleague for many years, but never practiced in Green’s court. So she talked to people in the court system to ask about how Green conducts herself on and off the bench. White said she found Green has been able to do just that — be the epitome of grace as a judge just as she was as an attorney.

“She knows kids and knows how to react to each one of them in an individual way. To me it’s the way she looks for individual ways to handle the cases that come through her court that exemplifies the heart to restorative practices,” White said. “She understands the need to handle different situations differently. She understands justice cannot be a cookie cutter approach. She assures everyone’s voice is heard.”

Cecile Wimberley, Neighborhood Reconciliation Services Inc. executive director, said in addition to the court programs the agency offers, there are also resolution programs for other organizations and businesses. Visit www.nrsinc.org for more information.

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