The highest form of justice heals both the victim and the wrongdoer

How do we heal what has hurt us?

We are living in a time and nation of deep division and animosity, a time of racial reckoning, a time when our trusted democratic institutions are faltering.

This has been exacerbated by a pandemic that has driven many of us into isolation so it is both refreshing and uplifting to come across an initiative that bridges divides and allows people to connect — even if remotely — in a way that is helpful and healing.

We wholeheartedly endorse a program launched this month to serve residents of Albany and Schenectady counties.

Named Legal Hand, it’s a call-in service staffed by trained volunteers. Anyone who has questions or problems — including with housing, immigration, family law, public benefits, or domestic violence — can get the assistance they need.

There is no income eligibility requirement and there are no fees.

One of the things we like about the program is that it can help people solve their problems before they become overwhelming, before someone is ensnared in the legal system.

Having necessary information can keep people from losing public benefits, from losing their homes, and often from going to court.

If you need a helping hand, we urge you to call 518-400-5544 or email

The 18 volunteers staffing the nascent program range from college students to retirees. Each volunteer, working from a computer at home, commits to at least a three-hour shift once a week.

We believe the volunteers will reap benefits as well.

As a review of recent research from the Corporation of National and Community Service put it: Over the past two decades we have seen a growing body of research that indicates volunteering provides individual health benefits in addition to social benefits. This research has established a strong relationship between volunteering and health: Those who volunteer have lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer.

“Access to justice means information,” Cheryl Vallee told us in last week’s Enterprise podcast. “It means a willing ear. It means very patient, thoughtful, and kind volunteers who are helping the visitor. Often people just want someone to listen and understand. And sometimes that’s really all that they’re looking for.”

Vallee, the director of the Center for Community Justice, based in Schenectady, which launched the Legal Hand program, has devoted her career to serving justice with a bent toward those who are often voiceless.

She has spoken up for children as a court-appointed advocate; she has helped recently released prisoners find their way back into being productive members of society; and she has worked to heal hurts through restorative justice.

Vallee calls the Legal Hand program “neighbor-to-neighbor assistance,” adding, “My view of access to justice is really that people are provided information and they’re treated fairly, and that’s really what anyone wants.”

Listening to Vallee, we realized, in the time of coronavirus, how rare neighborliness has become. For this week’s podcast, we conversed with Terrice Bassler who grew up in the Helderberg Hilltowns and has lived in many places around the world.

She said the only place where people dropped in on one another — showed up at a neighbor’s house without an appointment — was in the Hilltowns. That says something to us about the level of trust in the fabric of a close-knit community.

The Enterprise is often called a “community newspaper” in a pejorative sense, meaning we aren’t doing work as important as, say, the bigger daily papers. But, really, we consider part of our mission to build community, to get people who are neighbors to understand one another, to appreciate diversity.

This is especially true of our opinion pages in which people can find common ground by expressing and reading views that may be different than their own. Too often these days, people get their news only from sources that reflect their already-held views. We check the facts but let the opinions flow.

In our journalism, we often define problems. We see this as a necessary step to solving problems. We hope to empower our readers by informing them as we believe a community has a better chance of prospering if its residents have a common understanding.

Just as information can solve problems for callers to the Legal Hand program so, too, can information help local readers solve community problems.

One of the pillars of the Center for Community Justice — there is that important word, community, again — is restorative justice.

The Enterprise has written about restorative justice many times over the years, recently when Albany County lauded four graduates of its Project Growth program but most often in some of our local schools, particularly Berne-Knox-Westerlo, which drastically reduced its long-term suspensions and drop-out rate, partly by using restorative-justice circles.

Still, the examples Vallee so passionately described for us last week renewed our admiration for the approach.

“Restorative justice is really about repairing harm,” said Vallee.

The center has a Community Accountability Board — there, again, is that important word: community — made up of volunteers. The board deals with offenders who have committed low-level crimes like petit larceny or vandalism.

Vallee described one offender who had stolen a young woman’s cellphone. “Maybe not such a big deal — a slap on the wrist,” she said. “But the young woman came in and she talked about her dad’s suffering from cancer. This was her and his lifeline. So, if he needed something, he would call her and, if she didn’t have her cellphone, she couldn’t answer his call.”

Often offenders think no one was harmed by the crime committed, said Vallee. “Nobody, just me …,” they think. “I was arrested.”

But hearing from the victim changes that perception, she said. “So the question is: Who was harmed?” Vallee went on, “It’s recognizing that it’s not just about you. It’s about, maybe, who you victimize.”

Frequently, Vallee said, a building is spray-painted. The offender often thinks no one was harmed, feeling, “I’m just spray-painting the building because I’m artistic,” Vallee reported. 

“But what about the people that have to look at that?” she asked.

The board of community volunteers then might have the offender do research on what blight does to a neighborhood. She said of the resolution, “So there’s a task involved. There’s community service involved. Maybe it’s 10 hours … The idea is not for it to be punitive.”

If the task is successfully completed to the board’s satisfaction, the offender would go back to court and his or her record would be wiped clean, said Vallee. “The idea is that it be restorative: restore the individual who committed the offense, restore the victim, and restore the neighborhood.”

To end where we began: Since we are living in an era of such divisiveness when so many people are hurting, now is the time to use those principles of restorative justice in both a personal and community-building way.

As Bassler suggested to us this week, we are living in an era with rampant environmental destruction, with floods and fires, with civil unrest, and with faltering institutions — we are all hurting. If we look for the hurt in others, perhaps we’ll find common ground and heal.

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