TRAVERSE CITY —Kristen Burgess used to think of herself as a homebody. She never imagined she’d need a MacPass, give public testimony to state lawmakers, or compile years worth of data on sex crimes in Grand Traverse County.
Her domestic life was irrevocably changed April 11, 2018.
That was the day her husband, Victor “Scott” Burgess, 56, was arrested and charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct. He was later convicted and sentenced to 12 to 30 years in prison.
“It has been the darkest, most devastating time of my entire life,” Kristen, 37, of Fife Lake said, of the past year and a half.
On April 11, 2018, Kristen came home from her work as a midwife and found her husband in bed, naked, with her teenage daughter.
The 17-year-old was one of three children Burgess adopted when he and Kristen married in 2010. They had five children together, Kristen fled that night with all eight, took refuge in an area church and called 911.
The Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Department investigated, Burgess was arrested, charged with three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, to which he pleaded guilty.
Judge Thomas Power sentenced Burgess on the three counts and he is currently incarcerated in Chippewa Regional Correctional Facility in Kincheloe. His earliest release date is 2030.
Since her husband’s arrest, Kristen has been vocal about what she wanted from the justice system — and how she believes it failed her and her children.
Kristen said she does not object to her husband’s arrest or conviction. She also doesn’t refute the fact her daughter was the victim of a terrible crime. She objects to the lack of a plea offer, to a prison sentence she says is “vengeful but ineffective,” and to her fitness as a parent being questioned.
She has twice given testimony to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Joint Task Force on Jail and Pre-Trial Incarceration, once in Traverse City and once in Lansing; she submitted a five-page victim impact statement to Judge Power and sends him a letter every six months describing how her family is coping; she compiled data on all first-degree criminal sexual conduct charges, dismissals, plea bargains and sentences in Grand Traverse County since 1997; and when invited, she speaks in private homes about restorative justice.
She is also raising her children on her own, using heavily-taxed early withdrawals from her husband’s retirement fund to pay bills and buy groceries. She said she’s experienced every emotion one might imagine — rage, grief, horror and confusion — yet still hopes to someday be reunited with her husband.
Criticism for stating that publicly is to be expected, she said.
“Internet trolls can say I’m an idiot, the prosecutor can say I’m being manipulated, but there may be some people out there willing to listen. Restorative justice can work. And somebody needs to be brave enough to stand up and talk about it.”
The term “restorative justice” has been used by the court system since at least 2007, when the U.S. Department of Justice funded publication of the 110-page Restorative Justice On-Line Notebook.
“The current system in which crime is considered an act against the State, works on a premise that largely ignores the victim and the community that is hurt most by crime,” the notebook states. “Instead, it focuses on punishing offenders without forcing them to face the impact of their crimes.”
When deployed by the courts, restorative justice tends to mete out shorter prison sentences.
It is a way of thinking about crime and offender rehabilitation that encourages in-person meetings —which can often become verbal confrontations — as well as counseling, incarceration and reparations.
Instead of punishment, it emphasizes accountability and making amends, according to The Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, a program of Prison Fellowship International, a Christian-based nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.
Another nonprofit, The American Civil Liberties Union, has worked with judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to establish restorative justice programs in criminal courts. In Michigan, the ACLU helped establish a program in Wayne County, for juvenile offenders convicted of car theft.
The ACLU has no such pre-trial programs in northern Michigan, said area organizer Anna Dituri.
Restorative justice for offenders convicted of sex crimes is more controversial — some argue it trivializes violence against women, according to the Journal of Law and Society — and not everyone believes it has merit.
“I am familiar with the term,” said 13th Circuit Court Judge, Thomas Power, in a recent telephone interview. “Restorative justice is just a very fashionable slogan at the moment. I think there are situations which are beyond being fixed. This is one.”
Restorative Justice in Grand Traverse County
Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg said the county already offers a type of restorative justice for certain offenders.
“Drug court, sobriety court, domestic violence court, veteran’s court — those are all restorative justice,” Moeggenberg said. “We’re trying to rehabilitate people and get them the help they need, while at the same time, hold them accountable.”
For juveniles convicted of sex crimes, Moeggenberg said the county offers referrals to two programs — “Pathways” and “Becoming a New Me,” where psychiatrists and psychologists use workbooks and counseling materials in a therapy setting as part of a court mandate.
There are no similar offerings from the court for convicted adults in Grand Traverse County, either pre-trial, during probation, or statewide, early in a prison sentence.
Something Kristen said she takes issue with.
“We’re supposed to care about what victims want and victims need to heal in different ways,” she said. Restorative justice is valid. I just want people to hear and understand a different perspective. If the court won’t listen, if the prosecutor won’t listen, at least I can speak out in this way.”
The Voices of Victims
Both she and her daughter asked Moeggenberg to recommend a much shorter sentence for Burgess, for the prosecutor to make counseling and rehabilitation part of the sentence recommendation, and not to cut off contact between Burgess and his children indefinitely.
“What my dad did was wrong,” Kristen’s daughter said in a phone interview. “I hate what he did. But I don’t hate him.”
The now-18-year-old, one of Kristen’s three children from a previous marriage Scott Burgess adopted, attends regular counseling sessions at the Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center, and has spent hours reflecting on the crime.
She asked that her first name not be used, that she be defined by her accomplishments — reading the 1,400-page unabridged version of "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo, for example — and not by being a victim of a sex crime.
“My opinions might be similar to my mom’s, but they’re mine,” she said. “I’m homeschooled, and one of the things I did as part of my history course was to read all about free speech. So I know she is making the right choice by saying, ‘We need to change this.’”
The teenager said if she had the power to decide her father’s sentence, it would not have been 12 years.
“I really needed someone to listen to me,” Kristen’s daughter said. “And she didn’t. She did her own thing. “
“Her voice never mattered,” Kristen said, of her daughter’s wishes. “My voice never mattered. There’s a definite silencing that’s goes on. We were silenced by a system that did not fit with their agenda.”
Weighing Programs with Punishment
Moeggenberg acknowledged speaking several times with Kristen and once with Kristen’s daughter (with Kristen present) before Burgess was sentenced.
She said whenever Kristen speaks publicly, she leaves out the more disturbing details of the crime — that the abuse took place over three years and that Burgess was methodical about planning it, for example.
Moeggenberg said she isn’t opposed to new ideas regarding therapy and counseling, but her office, like most prosecutors offices throughout the state, is not set up to deliver such programs.
Last year she asked county commissioners for funding to hire another prosecutor just to keep with statutory demands and her request was denied.
“She provided me information about different types of rehabilitation, but frankly I don’t know enough about it, and it wasn’t rehab programs that were available here, or that we could help pay for,” Moeggenberg said. “Adult court is set up to do some of that, when possible, but also to punish.”
If there were such programs available, it’s likely there would be inmates to fill them.
Approximately 20 percent of the 40,000-plus men incarcerated by the Michigan Department of Corrections are serving sentences for sex crimes, said MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz.
Treatment — called Relapse Prevention Training — is provided in prison, but not until an offender is approaching release, according to MDOC documents.
By then, the window of time when restorative justice could be effective is past, Kristen said.
Restorative Justice for Two
Every two weeks, Kristen arranges what can only be called her own kind of restorative justice.
She drives over the Mackinac Bridge, uses her MacPass to save on the bridge fare, then travels to the prison in the Upper Peninsula where her husband is incarcerated, all for a twelve hour visit.
“There are so many guys in MDOC for a sexual crime and most of them have been abandoned by their families,” she said. “So in a way, it’s easier for them to rationalize it away. To blame the victim. But because we chose not to walk away, he sees every day the harm he’s caused.”
She said she often describes, in detail, how difficult hers and the children’s lives have become since Scott’s arrest and conviction. Earlier this winter, for example, her application to the Department of Health and Human Services for emergency heating assistance was denied.
“Now I’m scrambling,” she said. “I have to figure out who I can call to help me buy wood. That’s the kind of concern we would never have had when Scott worked for the bank. I just feel really alone.”
Her husband says hearing about Kristen’s challenges, and worrying about how she is going to handle them alone, is when he becomes overwhelmed with regret.
“I’m sorry for what I did. I’m sorry for it,” Scott Burgess said, in a telephone interview arranged by Robert Beaulieu of the MDOC. “I know I can’t dwell on the past all the time, but when she’s having a rough day, when she needs propane delivered or firewood cut and split, things I should take care of, then I think about it. I think about what I’ve done. And I’m filled with regret.”
This is exactly how restorative justice is supposed to work, Kristen said. And although she knows the safety of her children comes first, she said she hopes to someday be reunited with her husband.
“People are going to criticize me, I know that. What I say to them is, ‘If it were your son, would you support him?’ I think most people would. But no one wants to think someone they love could do this. No one thinks they could love someone society sees as a monster.”
Results and Advice
On January 9, the results of Gov. Whitmer’s Task Force on Jail and Pre-Trial Incarceration are expected to be released.
Kristen subscribes to the Michigan Supreme Court’s Youtube channel, and said she plans to be watching live when the results are discussed.
Kristen’s daughter graduates in May, is in the process of filling out college applications, and plans to study theatre, writing and art.
For girls who believe they are unsafe in their own homes, or at school, or church or with family friends, she had some advice.
“Talk to your best friend. Find someone you trust. Distance yourself from whoever is hurting you. Think about it on your own, and then once you’ve distanced yourself, then you might be ready to talk to someone else about what happened. It’s their shame, it’s not your shame.”
This story has been modified. The original story said Kristen visited her husband in prison for two and one half hours; the actual visits are 12 hours.
And a statement by the prosecutor said the abuse occurred over three years. The abuse lasted 22 months, ending April 11, 2018, according to court documents.