Community Justice Center Appears To Pivot Into Sex Offender Housing

Susan Cherry, director of the Community Restorative Justice Center in St. Johnsbury, looks over specifications about the center's new yurt while standing inside the structure on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. The center plans to use the space to bring small groups together. (Photo by Dana Gray)

It looks like The St. Johnsbury Community Justice Center may be getting into the sex offender housing business thanks to a $180,000 grant from the Vermont Department of Corrections (DOC).

That’s according to an email that Executive Director Susan Cherry sent out to landlords on May 18 looking for housing and offering to pay rent for offenders.

“The Community Restorative Justice Center has been granted funds to work with the VT Department of Corrections to find housing for people who have been in transitional housing,” reads Cherry’s email to the landlords.

However, Cherry doesn’t actually come out and directly say that she’s looking for “sex offender” housing in town. She takes a more subtle approach.

“We are specifically looking right now to place 4 men who are not able to be housed near churches, daycare or schools due to their charges,” wrote Cherry in her email. “Again - we would pay the rent to start and move them into becoming more independent as they are able.”

But Cherry, in an email response to questions, insists that she wasn’t trying to minimize or hide anything.

“I was trying to be very transparent,” said Cherry. “I am truly trying to be as open and transparent about this as possible.”

Transparency & Money

But Cherry declined multiple times to provide the amount of money the center was receiving from the DOC grant and how exactly the money will be used.

A copy of the proposed budget submitted with the justice center’s grant application obtained from the DOC by the Caledonian-Record, reveals that the justice center is scheduled to receive $180,000 this year to house a total of eight individuals in the community.

The DOC confirms some will be sex offenders. But not all.

According to the budget, $91,735 of the grant will be used to pay the salaries and benefits of two staff members; $72,100 will be used to pay rents, buy insurance, pay for utilities, fuel, pest control, snow removal, towels and linens and even $500 for “hygiene products.”

There’s also $8,965 for expenses such as furniture, food, moving costs including $3,300 for housing supplies such as furniture and “dishes.”

There is also a $7,200 line item listed as ”administrative/indirect.”

But the budget also indicates it will include an additional $75,100 in “leveraged funds” revenue bringing the “Total Program Budget” up to $255,100.

Mission & Services

The DOC housing program had been run for years by another local non-profit organization - Northeast Kingdom Community Action (NEKCA). The justice center recently landed the contract which goes into effect on July 1.

Cherry insists that the center is not getting into the housing business.

“We are not in the ‘housing business’ - but we work to get people safely housed and help people to be positive tenants and community members,” said Cherry in her email response. “Our mission has not changed.”

The justice center website (http://cjnvt.org/center/the-community-restorative-justice-center-in-st-johnsbury/) details the organization’s mission and the many “Programs and Services” the 501 (c) 3 non-profit offers.

“The Community Restorative Justice Center, Inc. (CRJC) provides opportunities for people to change the way they treat each other in order to maintain our communities as safe and enjoyable places to live, work and play,” reads the site.

The site also offers a long list of programs including restorative victim services, restorative justice panels, restorative conferences and restorative “circles” - where those responsible for a crime can “build a positive connection with their community.”

The site also lists “Facilitation of Community Dialogue,” “Outreach and Community Organizing,” “Community Conflict Assistance” and mediation services involving such issues as noise, pets, boundaries, and landlord-tenant disputes.

There are legal clinics, parking ticket appeal services and “Information and Referral Services” in which the center offers to facilitate communication with other organizations to “provide information and referrals for participants,” according to the site.

The site does list “Restorative Reentry Programs” as a justice center program but the description focuses on “facilitating dialogue” between inmates and their families and offers former inmates the opportunity to join the Circle of Support and Accountability (COSA) program - which includes a “personalized network of community members who volunteer their time to support the person’s actions as he or she builds a crime-free life.”

There is no mention on the site of finding housing for former prison inmates.

“This is not a new program,” said Cherry. “NEKCA ran it for years. We got the grant this time around - mostly because of the work we do with DOC and our community members. The people I need to house are already in NEKCA’s program, and we need to move them. I am not talking about new people coming to the area….The majority of the people coming back into the community are not sex-offenders.”

Salaries & Benefits

According to its most recent IRS non-profit form 990 filing, the St. Johnsbury Community Justice Center received $475,405 in revenues in 2018 and spent $432,930 in expenses.

$246,154 of that went to salaries and other employee compensation and benefits.

Cherry received $57,750 in compensation from the center in 2018, according to the 990.

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