In the late 1970s, the big issue in Genesee County was, should taxpayers fund the construction of a new jail.
According to former Sheriff Doug Call, now a Stafford town justice, the family court judge of the time, Charles Graney, wrote a letter to the editor that said something like, "You can either be the last county in the nation to build a 90-bed maximum security jail, or you can be the first to try to keep people out of jail by holding offenders accountable."
Call, a former JAG in the Air Force, a former seminarian and an attorney working for the County Attorney's office, would tell anybody who would listen that the criminal justice system was broken. The county didn't need a new jail. It needed to try alternatives to incarceration to limit the jail population and save taxpayers money.
The sheriff at the time wasn't buying it.
"We've tried alternatives to incarceration and they don't work," the sheriff told the County Legislature.
Finally, Call said, people told him to put his money where his mouth is and run for sheriff.
So, he did.
Call ran as a Democrat, pushing the idea of restorative justice, a radical notion at the time, to Genesee County's mostly Republican voters.
It was simple, Call said. If you lock a guy up, he gets out in six months or a year and has learned nothing, paid back nothing and his crime victims are left without recourse.
He traveled around the county and told the story of a young lady who lost both of her legs in an accident and the 20-year-old young man who caused the accident was given only a year in jail. Neither of the young people were well covered by insurance. At the end of his year in jail, the young man moved to Rochester for a $10-an-hour job. The young woman had no legs, no help, no prospects and medical bills she couldn't afford to pay.
"The system broke down in her case," Call said he told his audiences. "We didn't make him constructively responsible for his crime. It's about time we try something different."
People's heads would start to nod, Call said. The idea of holding criminals accountable instead of just warehousing them with a cot and three squares went over well with Genesee County's conservative voters.
Call was a Democrat who never carried a gun, didn't wear a badge and had ideas about the justice system that weren't being tried anywhere else in the nation. But he beat an incumbent and became sheriff in 1980.
Up until then, the criminal justice system was one focused on apprehension of suspected criminals and punishment of wrongdoers. Convicts were rarely given a chance for substance-abuse treatment or work-release programs so they could stay employed. They did nothing to make amends to the community or the people they hurt.
Victims were forgotten, no statements in court, no restitution for losses -- they were lucky if they knew the outcome of the court case from reading it in the paper.
Around this time, some faith-based groups were talking about a different approach to criminal justice. They called it "restorative justice." It's based on the Biblical principle of seeking forgiveness and offering restitution when you've harmed another person.
In Genesee County, Call said, the time was fortuitous to look at a different way of doing justice. He was the new sheriff in town, but he wasn't the only member of the legal community feeling dissatisfied with the lock-'em-up-and-bail-'em-out tradition.
Call was among a group of reformers that included Graney, Director of Probation Tom Gillis and County Judge Glen Morton.
The four men began to work on a plan to develop a program that would require community service from non-violent offenders.
They learned of a charity group in New Jersey looking to fund a criminal justice reform program. They applied for money from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and received a grant.
The grant came with two stipulations -- that the program show results, and that it be supervised by a law enforcement agency.
Another young man with reform on his mind -- also a former seminary student -- worked in the probation department.
He thought offenders should do some good for the community rather than just be a drain on taxpayers while sitting in jail.
But when Call, Graney, Morter and Gillis came to Dennis Wittman and asked him to take charge of a new community service program, Wittman said no.
They asked again. Same answer.
Wittman was Bethany's town supervisor, and had been for about 10 years, and he felt like being supervisor was a second full-time job. The last thing he needed was to be the founding director of some program nobody knew would work or last.
Then one day in 1981, Wittman was summoned to his supervisor's office. There he found Gillis, his boss, Call, Graney and Morton.
"I could see they were going to pound away on me," Wittman recalled. "I said, 'OK, I'll give it a try.'"
The new division reported to the sheriff, but representatives of the foundation were concerned that if Wittman sat in an office with a lot of detectives, their attitudes about offenders -- that they were just no good and couldn't be helped -- would rub off on him.
Wittman was given a chair, a typewriter and a small desk in the county's law library. He had no staff and there was no precedent for what he was about to do. He had to create from scratch everything to do his job, including the forms judges would use to assign offenders to community service.
Soon, however, 120 community groups signed up to provide volunteer jobs to thoroughly screened, non-violent offenders.
Offenders put into the program were asked to paint churches, mop hospital floors, file library books and clean up parks, among a myriad of other tasks.
By the time Wittman retired in 2006, 4,959 offenders had performed community service, doing 356,858 hours of unpaid work.
The alternative to jail had also saved county taxpayers more than $5.9 million because those offenders weren't in jail for the 60,000 days they would have served otherwise.
But community service alone wasn't enough for Wittman.
He also thought about the victims. He also thought about the offenders who were given no opportunity to make amends or learn just how much they might have hurt another person.
"He was creative," Call said. "He would make me nervous."
Wittman wanted to try things that would help keep even violent offenders out of jail, or reduce their sentences. The last thing Call needed from a program he supervised as an elected official, was some violent offender committing another crime while out of jail.
But Wittman persisted. He applied for more grants -- during his tenure, Wittman brought in more than $6 million to expand and fund Genesee Justice -- and implmented new programs.
- Victim's Assistance
- Judicial Diversion
- Justice for Children
- Child Advocacy
- Justice for Women
- Release Under Supervision (a Probation Department program until 2002)
- DWI-Conditional Discharge (a brainchild of District Attorney Lawrence Friedman)
But it would be restorative justice that would grab national headlines, making both Dennis Wittman and Genesee Justice household names in the restorative justice community.
Wittman has spoken to criminal justice and restorative justice groups in 40 states plus Japan and Canada. He received another 2,500 invitations to speak in Europe that he was unable to accept.
Even County Manager Jay Gsell, the author of a county budget proposal that will close the book on Genesee Justice, has previously recognized the work of Wittman's pioneering efforts.
"We don’t hear a lot (of complaints)" from the community," Gsell said in an interview several years ago.
... (Gsell) sees (this) as a “sort of testimonial to the success” of Genesee Justice. If it weren’t working, “I think we would hear what I’d call the strict constructionist saying, ‘Look at all these bleeding-heart liberals. Crime is running rampant in the streets of Genesee County and Batavia, and all these miscreants are out on the streets; we can’t deal with this; let’s lock everybody down,’" he says. “We’re not hearing that.”
The success stories related to Genesee Justice could fill a book, but only a few have been told.
There is the story of Joseph Minotti, a chronic drunken driver given a chance, after his seventh arrest, a felony charge this time, at rehabilitation. Eventually, Minotti would move to Erie County, remain clean and sober and start his own business.
Or "Ryan" and "Toby," two teens who trashed some school property and were given a chance to make amends.
Wittman recalled the story of a Le Roy teen, high on drugs, who shot and wounded another youth on Main Street. Wittman organized a community reconciliation meeting at a church in Le Roy. There was a spectrum of community members, plus the offender, the victim and the parents.
They talked through what happened. The young man heard firsthand how his crime affected his victim and the community. He agreed to get help for his drug problems.
TV journalist Geraldo Rivera heard about the intervention and invited Wittman, Judge Morton, the offender and the victim to fly to New York City and appear on his show.
The offender stayed out of jail, stayed clean and out of trouble, according to Wittman, until he died in a tragic accident a few years ago.
Call remembered a youth who was a habitual offender and charged with a serious offense. The judge wanted to send him to jail, but Wittman intervened. He convinced the judge to let the youth volunteer at the Senior Center on Bank Street.
The youth spent six months there, helping out in a variety of capacities, and getting to know the seniors who came to the programs there.
At the end of his six months, the seniors organized a going-away potluck lunch. They invited the sheriff, the DA and the judge.
The also invited the youth's father, who said, according to Call, "I'm so proud of my son today. My son was no good. He was a criminal and didn't care about what happened. I'm so proud that he did this."
Call added, "Dennis could make somebody constructively responsible for their conduct. He could bring about restorative justice instead of just warehousing them."
Two weeks ago, Wittman underwent a kidney transplant.
He's had a series of major health issues since 2005, starting with a heart attack. He has been admitted to ICU in Erie County twice, and twice at UMMC, where a liver problem caused him to bleed so much the entire ICU unit was covered in his blood. The doctor gave him only a 10-pecent chance to live.
Eventually, he had a liver transplant.
His health issues, he admits, are at least partly caused by the work and the stress that went into creating Genesee Justice.
"When you're a visionary, when you're innovative, you will have a lot of critics," he said. "Mostly, I just tried to ignore the sharpshooters."
At age 67, Wittman is disappointed to see that his life work might be undone.
"I feel bad that Jay (Gsell) has given up on it," Wittman said. "I don't think probation can do it. You've got to have the vision, the heart, the drive to make it work.
"They all want a free ride," Wittman added, with his voice rising for the only time in our interview. "How much of a free ride do they want? We brought in $6.3 million into this county (in grants), but they still want a free ride. If you want quality, you've got to pay for it."
Photo: Dennis Wittman with Kodah, a previous winner of The Batavian's "Pet of the Week."