Pete Lee

As the prime sponsor of most of Colorado’s restorative justice legislation, I thank Carol McKinley for her December 20 article in The Gazette. She accurately highlighted the astounding 1% recidivism rate in Denver, and the commendable 97% and 85% success rates in Adams/Broomfield and Weld Counties. Significantly, she captured the power of face-to-face dialogue in which the victim describes the harm caused by the offense, the offender accepts accountability, and both agree to a plan to repair the harm which benefits both the community and the harmed party. As Colorado DA’s Brian Mason, Beth McCann and Michael Rourke have shown, restorative justice reduces recidivism, makes communities safer, and helps victims begin healing.

I take issue, however, with the headline, “Crime increase prompts change” followed by the sub-headline, “restorative justice is the new normal.” Coupling these headlines could imply a correlation between restorative justice and rising violent crime, which does not exist. The restorative justice programs described in the article are primarily used for low level, non-violent offenders, while the crime statistics relate to violent adult repeat offenders. The two should not be conflated.

Contrary to the headline, restorative justice is far from being the “new normal,” if “new normal” means the commonly accepted and most prevalent practice. Restorative justice is relatively rare as it is only used in carefully selected cases, usually juveniles, and almost never for repeat offenders. According to the article, Denver referred some 150 cases to restorative justice in two years while filing over 10,000 criminal cases during that period. Similarly, Weld County referred 100 juvenile cases and Adams Broomfield diverted about 400 cases to restorative justice out of thousands of case filings. While I support far greater use of restorative justice, currently, as these case numbers illustrate, RJ is the exception, not the norm.

I would like to clear up a few misconceptions about how restorative justice works. For instance, the article portrayed restorative justice as requiring victim participation, which is not correct.

Restorative justice is always completely voluntary; no one is compelled to participate. Victim safety is a primary consideration. Participants attend pre-conferences with a trained facilitator to assess their suitability to participate. If there is any issue of safety, coercion or control, the process does not occur. Further, referring to restorative justice as a “trendy name for mediation” is also inaccurate. Unlike mediation, a victim in restorative justice is never expected to make concessions or bargain. I urge our local DAs to follow DA McCann’s example and actually attend a restorative justice conference to experience it first-hand. They would find it enlightening and amazing as she did.

Further, it’s wrong to imply that victims must “buy into the deal” to get restitution. Victims are entitled to restitution and victim compensation regardless of their participation in restorative justice. That is the law in Colorado. Victim participation in restorative justice is always voluntary and never a prerequisite to obtaining restitution.

Criminal justice is not a one size fits all proposition. Restorative justice is just one of a variety of responses to address crime in the community. It is not appropriate for all cases, nor is it a panacea and it is certainly not the “new normal”. Mass incarceration has been the normal in Colorado for thirty years as we incarcerate more people per capita than virtually any other country, with catastrophic consequences for our families and communities.

We are all concerned about crime and the impact it has on victims and communities. We need to find tools to intervene early and prevent crime before it happens. We need to divert appropriate people to restorative justice, community mental health and drug treatment rather than locking them up. We also need to address the underlying contributors to crime such as homelessness, drug addiction, pandemic related isolation, unemployment, poverty, lack of education and job training. When restorative justice is selectively and judiciously used as in Denver, Weld and Adams/Broomfield, it has proven to be successful to promote offender accountability and reduce re-offending. It improves community safety and facilitates victim healing and satisfaction.

We should make restorative justice the “new normal” by empowering victims with the right to participate in restorative processes, if they choose to do so.

Pete Lee is the State Senator for Colorado SD 11.

Pete Lee is the State Senator for Colorado SD 11.

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