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A place for community mediation

September 24, 2014
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Indiana law established community mediation centers in 1998, but money never followed. Advocates argue it’s time the state invest in alternatives to court that they say would produce more favorable outcomes at lower costs.

Indiana Code 34-57-3 says the centers may accept criminal cases diverted by a prosecutor, civil cases ordered to mediation by a judge, or non-insurance civil disputes in which both parties agree to have cases mediated outside of court. The statute also provides no fees would be charged to indigent parties, though nominal fees could be charged for those able to pay.

But community mediation centers established under I.C. 34-57-3 largely remain an unfunded creation of the Legislature. Nevertheless, a handful of organizations are providing mediated solutions for civil and minor criminal matters, and family disputes. Often, though, they’re doing it on a shoestring and relying on donations.

“There is a need for funding community mediation centers throughout the state,” said Mark Taxter, intake supervisor for the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office’s Conflict Resolution Services. The office has done 159 community mediations in the past six years in neighborhood disputes, landlord-tenant and other kinds of cases, but Taxter is thinking bigger.

He hopes a Marion County judge will agree to supervise a proposal for a community mediation center that would be followed by a court reform grant to implement it. “The state of court-referred mediation is wonderful,” he said, “but for community mediation, mediation for the indigent, there is no infrastructure. It’s needed.”

Taxter said Marion County studied low-level criminal cases in 2006 that could have been settled through mediation. The study found that the cost to prosecute a criminal case to its conclusion is more than $3,000, compared with $68 if the case were handled instead by a volunteer community mediator.

“The cost savings to the taxpayer and to the city at large would be enormous,” he said.

Marion County, like many others, also offers restorative justice programs for certain offenders. Those who take responsibility for a crime and make restitution to the victim or the community are rewarded with a chance to have the charge dropped in many cases.

In Indianapolis, those cases come through Community Court, where Community Impact Panels of 10 to 15 people mediate “quality of life” cases such as public intoxication, prostitution, patronizing prostitution, conversion and disorderly conduct, Taxter said. Since July 2008, 3,974 offenders have appeared before Community Impact Panels, he said.

The Center for Community Justice in Elkhart and the Community Justice & Mediation Center, also known as CJAM, in Bloomington offer restorative justice programs using volunteer mediators. For its restorative justice programs, CJAM works closely with Monroe County’s criminal justice system to identify people who can be served by its Victim & Offender Restoration Program.

With mediators, “We will work with the offender to try to get down to the root of why that crime was caused,” said Susan Burton, executive director. VORP serves about 50 to 70 clients a year.

Like many community mediation centers, the one in Bloomington relies largely on volunteers to handle disputes. CJAM is conducting several training sessions for volunteer mediators in September and October at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law.

In addition to VORP, the center runs a diversion program for people arrested for shoplifting. That program currently serves about 100 people. The center conducts mediation for some civil matters if parties agree to try to work out their cases.

But the modest fees for some of these services from users or the court are insufficient to support the organization, which relies heavily on donations.

“We’re trying to really make a difference and fulfill our mission by promoting a civil and just community through mediation, education and restorative justice,” Burton said. “We want people in the community to be able to resolve conflicts on their own or have a place they can go without flooding the courts.”

Kelly Neff, community mediation coordinator at the center in Elkhart, said funding is a constant challenge, though the program there receives some local funding. “The county sheriff’s department is our largest source of referrals,” she said, and those cases usually involve neighbor disputes or property crimes that can be diverted from the criminal justice system.

Neff said the center also provides some mediation in civil and domestic cases. In fiscal year 2013-14, 61 percent of the 219 clients served reached agreements in their mediation, avoiding 52 trials, according to the center’s annual report. Its VORP program served 1,100 clients, and its family mediation program resolved 165 of 187 cases referred.

Burton said training is a key part of the work at CJAM, just as it is at the Education for Conflict Resolution Center in North Manchester.

“We do a lot of educational-type things. We have regular workshops to teach people how to mediate,” said Dean Beery, chairman of the board and a mediator at ECR, which has been serving clients primarily in Wabash, Huntington and Kosciusko counties for 26 years.

The center on the campus of Manchester University handles a number of court-ordered mediations, including child custody and domestic relations cases. Family and neighborhood disputes also are among the more common cases presented before volunteer mediators.

Beery said he’s been surprised at the solutions participants can reach in disputes that, at first blush, appear intractable. The introduction of a neutral third party can change the dynamics that are fueling a dispute.

“There are a lot of cases when (participants) begin to hear each other and see the other person not just as their enemy,” he said. “We have some amazing results sometimes.”

But the program relies on donations and small sums from the referring courts. Even after more than a quarter-century, Beery said the organization continues to try to get the word out about services its volunteers provide.

In Vigo County, pro se divorce litigants who are parents of a minor child must attend a divorce mediation consultation offered through the Dispute Resolution Center of Wabash Valley Inc.

“Through that class they learn about mediation and why it’s beneficial to have mediation instead of being in a high-conflict courtroom environment,” said Karen Swopes, president of the center and a mediator and private practitioner in Terre Haute.

The divorce mediation consultation program is provided at no charge, but Swopes said the center hasn’t provided actual mediation services for some time. “We found that for our resources, that was more than we could bear,” Swopes said of providing mediated divorces.

Couples are offered referrals if they choose mediation, though, and Swopes said just being made aware of alternative dispute resolution can help people who can least afford legal services.

“If you have an attorney, you’re going to be talking about this,” she said. “Those people who don’t have an attorney may not know.”

Swopes said the program has been popular. “People tend to like it and the theory is we find (participants) in court less, and there’s less follow-up” regarding child support or custody issues. The center also provides the classes for litigants referred from courts in nearby Clay, Parke and Sullivan counties.

According to the center, 176 people attended informational sessions in 2013, more than half of whom reported they were interested in mediating their dispute or learning more about mediation.

Several of these organizations and others, such as the Peace Learning Center in Indianapolis, also provide workshops as well as specialized mediation and dispute resolution training for organizations and community groups.

Beery, from the North Manchester organization, said he sees a greater role for community mediation. “I think there are a lot of areas where we would save money if it were more widely known and more widely practiced.”•

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