By Clayta Richards / Sun managing editor
Got a beef against your neighbor . . . or his dog? Has your car been abducted by a joyriding teen? Have you been the victim of a small-time theft?
These and many other misdemeanor situations, such as assault, harassment, vandalism, animal disputes, some contract disputes and shoplifting, may benefit by using the Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) rather than pursuing a full-blown court case.
Crossville and Cumberland County are fortunate to be one of 10 locations in the state where VORP is available to its citizens. Located on Hwy. 70 E in Crossville, Executive Director Rita Young states the Crossville VORP handles one third of all VORP cases in the state, which works out to be approximately 200-250 cases per year.
"It's the larger number of volunteers we have," said Young, "that enables us to handle that many cases. We've been a model for other programs in the state, and we're always in need of more volunteers." Crossville's VORP was also the second one developed in the state. Oak Ridge was the first and deals strictly with juvenile matters.
VORP works under a contract with the Tennessee State Supreme Court. That court also provides a grant to the program each year to help with operating costs. In addition, the program receives funding from the United Fund of Cumberland County, the city of Crossville, the Lawyer's Trust Account, churches and individuals.
Structurally, VORP is governed by a 10-member board of directors consisting of Leonard Stark, president and founder; Ken Steadman, vice president; Shirley Duer, secretary; Karen Cole, treasurer; Bernard Conklin; Dennis Leigh; Bill Naumann; Jerry Pick; Don Reis; and Jon Goodwin. Stark founded the program in Crossville in 1989, and Ken Steadman has been right by his side most of the time. "When I moved here, I was looking for something to get involved in when I heard about this," said Steadman.
Young is the program's third paid director. She is a constant at general sessions, civil and juvenile courts where judges assign cases to the program. "Referrals can also be made in the community and by individuals, providing a warrant has not been taken," said Young.
Costs differ, depending on how your case came to VORP:
If the case has not gone to court (no warrant filed), there are no court costs.
If a warrant has been filed against you and an agreement is reached through VORP, the charges are dismissed, which means there will be a dismissal on your record. Court costs will still apply but are subject to negotiation regarding who will pay them.
If a client fails to satisfy the terms of court-assigned case settlement, the case is returned to court for its disposition. Since VORP cases are confidential, no information, other than the agreement may be taken from the VORP case when the matter returns to the court system.
In cases where an agreement is not being satisfied in an individual-referral matter, the victim has the right to take the matter to the court system.
VORP monitors all case settlements to bring them to satisfactory completion, which can sometimes take years. They are also able to refer clients to several rehabilitative programs, such as the shoplifing course. Those attending courses must pay for materials and take a test at course completion. They are also required to make restitution for damages.
VORP has a very high success rate, with 90 to 95 percent of parties, from both sides of the cases, reporting they have been very satisfied with the settlement agreements they have reached.
"The reason they're so happy is that we can take the time to actually listen to them," said Young.
Steadman added, "So many times, when it's all over, the people will shake hands or even hug."
Young noted a fairly recent case of youthful joyriding, where the settlement ended with the victim requiring the offender to pursue their GED. It was another win-win for VORP and the parties to the case.
Another win-win can be counted in your pocketbook and in the lifting of caseload on the courts. "Using VORP to settle your differences will save you approximately $1,500 and save the taxpayers the cost of the district attorney's and public defender's time," said Young. With VORP, cases are usually settled within six to eight weeks after referral.
As with any mostly volunteer operation, VORP is always looking for funds and volunteers.
"We work very hard to have a professional and ethical organization," Young emphasized. "The way we provide this service is through the gracious gifts of donors and volunteers."
Steadman added, "We're always looking for mediators. There's no formal education or background required — if you've raised a family, you've got the skills." A free two-day training program, with a free training manual and lunch, is provided.
If you would like to volunteer or have a case you want to bring to VORP, call 484-0972. The office is located at 584 Hwy. 70 E. in Crossville; the e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
"This is a service that helps the entire community," said Young.