Mediation program keeps Worcester cases out of court Effort has seen 98 percent success rate By Brian Shane Staff Writer
SNOW HILL -- Worcester County's mediation program has proven to be a categorical success, the county's top prosecutor says, with nearly every single case resolved without setting foot in a courtroom.
"It's really exceeded our expectations," said Worcester County State's Attorney Joel Todd, whose office runs the program. "Fifty percent of people lose in court every day. In mediation, everybody gets to win."
Mediation gives residents who have filed a criminal complaint an opportunity to resolve their legal issues by talking things through, instead of battling in court. Todd said it helps to unlock the underlying problem, so those involved won't continue to break the law or cause problems. And so far, he says, they haven't: Not one person who's participated in the program has gone on to commit another crime.
It's also saving the county thousands in tax dollars by keeping police, judges and prosecutors out of the courtroom -- people who otherwise would have to be paid for their time in court. Mediation also reduces clogged court dockets and frees police and prosecutors to handle more pressing cases. It also can be scheduled quickly, versus court cases which can take weeks or months to unfold.
Mediation Director Katharine Cropper said more than 360 cases have been referred to her office in the program's three-year history. Of the 218 cases that went to mediation, all but one was completely resolved, Cropper said.
It's a conflict resolution success rate of 98 percent.
"That's unheard of," Todd said.
Cropper doesn't run a large office -- it's a one-woman staff. But she's earned plenty of accolades all on her own. Todd said many clients note how Cropper immediately makes people feel at ease in mediation, and that she genuinely cares about the outcome of their case.
"She has the ideal personality for this job," Todd said. "She's just the perfect fit."
Naturally, every case is different, and takes its own time to be settled, Cropper said. Everyone's name is kept confidential, and everything said is entirely off the record. She said people are very responsive to a laid-back, face-to-face environment, instead of an intimidating courtroom setting. She's also received a host of positive feedback from participants -- but that's confidential, too.
However, not just anyone can waltz into the free sessions, she said. Parties must be Worcester County residents, and cases must qualify as a misdemeanor. Those include disputes between neighbors or businesses, or cases of assault, harassment, trespassing, theft, disorderly conduct or phone misuse. All cases get reviewed by the State's Attorney's Office before moving to mediation.
The program has been funded by a three-year, $35,000 grant from the Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office, but that grant expires this year. Todd plans to ask the Worcester County Commissioners next month for funding to make it a permanent program on the basis that it saves the county a lot of money. He also has the support of several county judges.
Many mediation issues are between neighbors, said Rachel Wohl, executive director of the Maryland Mediation and Conflict Resolution Office. The mediator will try to get the parties to see the issues, not the people, as problems. Mediation can stop conflicts from escalating to the point where people hurt or even kill each other, she said.
"Many times, it's just the tip of the iceberg of a dispute," she said. "In mediation, if they can come to their own understanding and reach their own agreement with each other, they're more likely to follow it and get to the root of the problem."
Cropper said she loves her job, and the satisfaction of helping people work out their differences.
"There's nothing more gratifying than when a family comes in and they're not even speaking to each other -- and when they leave they're smiling," she said.