Peacegiving Court

Don Costello shuffles through paperwork in his office at the Coquille Indian Tribe. Costello previously served as a tribal and state judge in other locations before bringing his restorative-justice system to the South Coast.

For years, Judge Donald Costello sentenced offenders to jail and prison terms, only to see them back in his courtroom with nothing to show for their time served.

Costello doesn't work that way anymore. Instead, he practices an innovative spin on the judicial system that has become one of America's most effective restorative-justice programs.

'Our recidivism rate is around 5 percent," said Diane Whitson, court clerk for the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Suislaw Indians. 'There is as much as a 67 percent failure rate of people who are incarcerated. We haven't had anyone re-offend since we started this system."

That system is known as the Peacegiving Court. Costello was part of a team that invented it in Deschutes County, and now it's part of the judicial systems for both the Coquille Indian Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Suislaw Indians.

Restorative justice emphasizes repairing the harm caused by the crime, making offenders take accountability for their actions and their crimes' effect on victims. The victims are active participants, providing insight on a crime's impact and helping devise solutions.

Case in point

Joe Ward could tell by the look on his cousin's face he was in trouble. There would be no warnings or second chances this time.

The cousin, a Coquille tribal police officer, stopped Ward in 2004 for driving with a suspended license. Ward had neglected to pay nearly $6,000 in traffic fines. Little did he know, Ward was set to become the poster boy for a new peacegiving process that many tribal members still doubted.

'Joe was really the model case to answer people's questions if this would work," Costello said.

Costello could have imposed additonal fines and revoked Ward's driver's license. But that would have left Ward unable to work and provide for his family.

Instead, Costello referred him to the Peacegiving Court. There, Ward was connected with a peacegiver, a mentor handpicked to create a plan for Ward's future.

Ward was then put into a peacegiving circle, in which the people affected by his poor decisions spoke to him. The circle included the peacegiver, Ward's aunt and his boss, among others.

A contract was then drawn up that allowed Ward to borrow money from his aunt and boss to pay off the fines while he continued to work. He also had to go through every tedious step to regain his driver's license.

'There was a lot of appointments and running around," he said. 'That piece of license is gold, and that whole process made me realize that."

Within four moths, Ward regained his license, which he happily showed to Costello. Soon after that, he paid his debts.

'It really taught me to be responsible," he said. 'It was a good way to get me to learn a lesson."

'He is the god'

Costello is the father of the Peacegiving Court. He began practicing restorative justice in the state court system in Deschutes County in 1984.

'We were the first court system in the country to practice restorative justice," Costello said.

Costello said he did away with such words as 'punishment" and concepts like leniency. He focused instead on innovative ways to teach offenders the real consequences of their actions.

Soon, Costello and his fellow judges were seeing lower recidivism rates. Deshutes County became a national model.

In 1997, Costello was approached by the leaders of the Coquille Tribe. They were concerned about leadership within the tribe. They wanted to challenge the community to find other ways of justice.

Costello became the Coquille Tribe's chief judge and began working with tribal leaders. The Confederated Tribes joined the project in 2002, and soon both tribes had their models in place.

'He is the god when it comes to the Peacegiving Court," Whitson said. 'We have all been trained by him."

How does it work?

Tribal members who violate tribal law can't get into Peacegiving Court unless they admit their guilt. Person-to-person disputes also can go to Peacegiving Court, if both parties must accept a referral. Costello said that usually happens.

The party or parties are then connected with a peacegiver, who guides them through an agreed-upon plan. Most peacegiving cases involve juveniles, but adults can be referred as well.

'When a person commits an offense, it's not just one person involved," Whitson said. 'Multiple people are affected. We find out everybody who is involved and give them the chance to speak."

The Coquille Tribe and the Confederated Tribes oversee areas within Coos, Curry, Lane and Douglas counties. The Coquille Tribe also stretches to Jackson County, and the Confederated Tribes reach Lincoln County. Any violation or dispute on tribal lands in these counties can be referred to a Peacegiving Court.

The court handles only what a state system would call misdemeanors, mostly dealing with vandalism, theft, person-to-person violence, custodial interference and some drug- and alcohol-related offenses. Any tribal member who commits a federal felony goes to non-tribal court.

The peacegivers are volunteers, and the system costs the tribe almost nothing. By comparison, Whiton estimates incarcerating an offender costs nearly $32,000 a year.

Costello dismisses any suggestion that his restorative

justice system is soft on crime.

'Having sent a lot of people to jail in my life, I have never really noticed anything productive happen while they were there," he said. 'It's just time spent. I have never had anybody say to me (peacegiving) is not effective. It has never happened."

Whitson agrees.

'If people think the peacegiving court is easy, they are mistaken," she said. 'The peacegivers make the children acknowledge and accept what they have done. They make them restore."

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