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Face to face with victims: Boulder County to expand restorative justice

Jul 24, 2014

from the article on Daily Camera Boulder County News: 

As a prosecutor, Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett is a big believer in the American court system. But even Garnett admits there are times when months of hearings and drawn-out jury trials aren't the answer — especially in the case of adolescents.

"That may make sense for a murder case, but it doesn't make sense for a kid knocking a mailbox off its post," Garnett said.

His office will be one of four in Colorado participating in a state pilot program to help youths stay out of the court system — even the juvenile court system — and resolve their cases through restorative justice. Over the next few months, Garnett and his staff will be working on opening the 20th Judicial District Attorney's Center of Prevention and Restorative Justice.

Rather than focusing on punishment in court, restorative justice seeks to get juveniles face-to-face with the people harmed by their crimes.

In meetings that also include trained facilitators, law enforcement officers and members of the community, offenders create a plan to make amends directly to the people they affected and get a first-hand look at the consequences of their actions.

"Restorative justice can be very powerful," said Peggy Jessel, chief deputy of the Boulder DA Office's juvenile division who will become director of the program. "It's empowering and healing for the victims. It gives them a chance to ask, 'Why did you pick me?'"

Although some jurisdictions — including Boulder County — already use restorative justice in sentencing as a condition of probation, the state Legislature passed a bill in 2013 seeking to expand the use of restorative justice. The bill also created a pilot program to collect data on its feasibility as a possible alternative to the juvenile court system statewide.

Boulder County was selected by the state as one of four judicial districts — along with those in Weld, Pueblo and Alamosa counties — to participate in the pilot program. Garnett said his office has already secured about $500,000 in funding from the state and other grant programs to pay for the estimated $50,000 to $100,000 in extra costs during the center's first several years.

Garnett said he hopes to have the center up and running by October, and he hopes that 60 to 70 percent of the 500 or so juvenile cases Boulder County sees every year will go through the program. Already this year, about 100 juveniles have been diverted to the restorative justice program, he said.

"This could be one of the most dramatic changes in Colorado law ever," Garnett said. "We're excited to be at the forefront of it."

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