A recent report which details the skyrocketing societal and financial costs of rising crime rates in Colorado, coupled with a dismal 50% recidivism rate, which is one of the worst in the country, have prompted a warning from leading prosecutors: Well-intended policies which coddle criminals has made life in the state more dangerous.
But one philosophy which allows victims and offenders to look each other in the eye and talk things out is gaining steam among the state’s district attorneys, whether they favor a tough-on-crime approach or tend to lean toward reforming the justice system.
That model, called restorative justice, is being used in all but five states across the nation. “Restorative justice has emerged as a new legal norm, but it’s not meant to be a panacea," said Thalia González, one of the country’s leading voices in support of the RJ model, as it is called. González got her start in Colorado in 2008 working within the Denver Public Schools and is now an assistant professor at Georgetown University Law Center and Occidental College.
RJ is modeled after a method which was used among North America’s indigenous people, specifically the Navaho, and is designed to promote healing and understanding. It usually involves a mediated face to face encounter between the victim of a crime and the offender. The victim explains the harm which was done and the perpetrator in turn discusses what led to the decision to commit the crime and they attempt to come to terms. “Recidivism is one thing, but what we really ultimately want is thriving productive adults in our community. Doing this in earlier stages in a care-based society is how we work for that to occur,” said González. “People just want to be understood.”
RJ success depends on whom you ask because every jurisdiction has a different vision for its model which usually involves a contract whereby the perpetrator’s record is wiped clean after staying out of trouble for a determined period of time.
“It can be very healing in a way that the defendant getting a conviction is not very healing. The victim can say to an offender ‘this is how you impacted my life.’ And that can be very powerful,” said Brian Mason, district attorney for the 17th Judicial District which includes Broomfield and Adams Counties.
The 17th's RJ policy does not accept criminals with level 1 or 2 felonies, people who commit violent crime and won’t take anyone who refuses to admit to what they did. Eighty-five percent of offenders who go through the program stay clean for three years. “People who say restorative justice is weak on crime don’t understand it,” said Levon Hupfer, director of Mason’s diversion program.
Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, who was Denver Mayor Wellington Webb’s Manager of Safety in the 1990’s, said she was a skeptic of the RJ model until she saw it for herself, “I thought ‘This sounds like kumbaya movement.’ I’ve seen so much criminal behavior, it didn’t seem serious and then I observed one and I was amazed at the impact that it had.”
In two years, Denver’s RJ model, has an astounding 1% recidivism rate, which McCann said translates to one person out of 107 people who completed the Restorative Denver program committed another crime. Deputy District Attorney and Restorative Denver director Chris Brown-Haugen told The Gazette that the single failure was a woman who was involved with stealing a vehicle and got a DUI at the same time. That person will now go through the traditional system; but the remaining 148 are crime-free. “This is their exit from the system. They’re not going to be coming back,” said Brown-Haugen, who acknowledged that over two years, two people were terminated from Restorative Denver, 8 people withdrew from the program and 32 people are currently going through it.
Recently, Restore Denver expanded to include felony cases, as in the instance of a young Denver mother named Genesis, who coughed on a McDonald’s worker and told her she was infected with the virus during the height of COVID.
“The food took a long time. It was cold and not what I wanted,” said Genesis. When the police came, Genesis was arrested, charged with felony menacing and forced to give up her son to social services.
After a year of doing community service and journaling, Genesis is on track to get her son back. “It was a second chance at life. I could have been sitting with a felony. I did wrong. I know I did wrong. I know I would never do that again,” said Genesis, whose last name is being withheld at her request. She shared her story during a Zoom fundraiser for Restore Denver during Colorado Gives Day which raised more than $5,000 for the program.
Restorative justice is not a magical answer to crimefighting. Mitch Morrissey had a similar program to McCann’s while he was a three-term Denver DA. He told The Gazette that some RJ models are backwards, paying more attention to the offenders’ needs than they do to the person they harmed. “To get victims restitution, you must get them to buy into the deal. Sometimes victims are so angry they don’t want anything to do with it,” said Morrissey, who co-authored the aforementioned Colorado crime analysis done in tandem with The Common Sense Institute and former 18th Judicial DA George Brauchler.
Their research found that violent crime in Colorado has gone up 10% per year since 2011. Of those arrested in Denver in 2021, 65% had at least one prior arrest since 2018.
“The problem with this whole thing is that there are repeat offenders and habitual criminals, things like organized shoplifting rings, criminal enterprises, people who come in after doing the same crime five times,” said Morrissey. “Restorative justice won’t work for them.”
Michael Allen, DA for the 4th Judicial District which includes El Paso and Teller counties, says restorative justice is a trendy name for mediation, which has been around “as long as people have been on earth,” he said. “Calling the process of mediation ‘restorative justice’ puts a pretty bow on something that has been around forever.”
The 4th has its own version of atonement for low-level offenses, called Neighborhood Justice during which people with minor disputes gather around designated tables in a room on the second floor of the El Paso County Justice Center to resolve arguments over things like property lines and barking dogs.
Allen says he supports the RJ model but stresses that it should never be used for serious crimes. “You’re revictimizing the victim by making that person sit across from the offender and now the offender has some sort of control over the outcome and the participation of the victim. That to me is something that is a huge criticism and something I would never support,” said Allen.
No gang members allowed
Weld County takes on 100 RJ cases per year in tandem with its juvenile diversion program. Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke told The Gazette he only considers first-time offenders and low-level misdemeanors to participate, and there is one group which he will not tolerate in his model: Gang members. “Kids who are in gangs have already demonstrated criminogenic thinking.”
Since 2005 when Weld County first started RJ, 97% of cases successfully completed diversion and approximately the same rate did not commit another crime. “Those going through the court system are the ones who truly need to. And those who we can divert, and we never see again,” said Rourke. “We’re looking for kids who just messed up.”
Two kids who messed up in Adams County provide a solid example of how being held accountable can be a deterrent for the young and impressionable. Hupfer recalls the case of 10- and 12-year-old boys who threw rocks at an oncoming Burlington Northern Santa Fe train and caused $10,000 in damages, money the kids’ families didn’t have. “It would have changed their entire family life. The Burlington Northern manager agreed to waive all charges if they agreed to talk about train safety,” said Hupfer. The kids visited schools and explained what they did as part of their restitution plan.
Or there’s the case of the 16-year-olds who turned off the subdivision circuit panels to around 100 homes in Strassburg for fun. “The HOA wanted to participate. The police officer also got involved. These kids didn’t get off easy,” said Hupfer. “These guys saved their money and bought groceries for neighbors whose food had spoiled when the power went out. They could be a chief of police or a teacher someday.” It’s been four years and neither teen has gotten in trouble again.
The 17th spends around a million dollars on its diversion program with a full-time therapist in-house. Mason, who has been DA since January and ran on a promise to expand diversion programs, says it’s more important than ever to rethink criminal justice. “I think diversion is more important today than ever before. In a world now where the criminal justice system is under scrutiny as never before. When I can keep someone out of the system who doesn’t need to be in it, that makes the system better and our community safer.”
Find the Colorado Crime Wave report here:
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