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The Rise and Fall of Restorative Justice on Boulder’s University Hill

Thomas Russell provides background to the initiation and decline of a restorative justice programme in Boulder, Colorado. His description provides lessons for restorative justice implementation.

This is his summary of a longer article available at 


In September 2000, seven weeks after I moved to Boulder, University of Colorado students rioted three-quarters of a block from my home. This was the seventh University Hill riot since May 1997. These riots followed a predictable pattern: undergraduate minors, mass quantities of beer, and some sort of police action that ends the party before the kegs are drained. Students respond by engaging in vandalism that in one case lasted three days. Property damage associated with most riots has ranged from $5,000 to $10,000 each, although the three-day riot resulted in damages ranging from $400,000 to $500,000. Perhaps even more significant for the non-student residents of the Hill were the threats to public safety (drunk driving, fighting, sexual assaults, burglaries and thefts) and the damage to quality of life (loud noise at all hours of the night, litter and other party byproducts visible in the daylight). In response, my neighborhood launched a strong effort to respond using restorative justice principles and practices. After showing initial promise and effectiveness, the restorative initiatives failed.

The following are lessons I derive from the story of the rise and fall of restorative justice in my Boulder neighborhood. Although I am a legal scholar, I write as a community member about our restorative justice experience. My focus is on what we did in our neighborhood with restorative justice. It is a personal story, laden with my personal opinions and observations.

For about one year after the fall 2000 riots, we had substantial success incorporating restorative justice ideas into our neighborhood organizing efforts. We reconceived of crime as harm to the neighborhood and held ourselves accountable at least to some extent. Fortified by a new conception of crime and looking for accountability, we applied considerable pressure on Boulder City government, CU, its students, and University Hill landlords.

Part of what we successfully changed was some attitudes about law enforcement on the Hill. Against the backdrop of Boulder’s culture of non-enforcement, any increase in the amount of enforcement activity appeared to be great. In the eyes of partying students and lawbreaking landlords, the changes we made amounted to a change in the rules of the game. Their response was to claim injustice or to characterize lawful complaints as either vigilantism or harassment. Although we were never successful in increasing substantially the number of people with the gumption to call the police, we did increase the number of calls by forming a neighborhood watch that had the effect of increasing the amount of support for those who were willing to call the police. More importantly, the attitude of the police changed quite dramatically, and the neighbors began to work in partnership with the police. 

There was an escalation in the demands for accountability on the part of those who committed the crimes—landlords and students—or those who created conditions that allowed crimes to happen—city staff and again, landlords. We used the language of restorative justice when we made demands. We used the language of restorative justice—harm to the neighborhood, in particular—and we used restorative practices such as conferencing, sentencing circles, cleanups, victim impact statements, and community policing. Our concern about harm to the neighborhood was tied to practices that we used to repair harm to the neighborhood. In tandem, the twin concepts were very powerful.

Fortified by conceptions of restorative justice, our neighborhood moved quickly. In part this was necessary, because a number of us realized that we had to make as much progress as quickly as possible while there was the energy to accomplish change. However, we ran into problems. The municipal court judge was our strongest supporter, but we knew that other court staff members, including the court administrator, were uncomfortable with or hostile to the new regime that we ushered into Boulder. We increased the workload of the municipal court and its staff by bringing more cases. By demanding that other city staff write more tickets, we created more work for the court staff—we heard through the grapevine that court staffers felt that we had shifted the “balance” on the Hill. We had, of course. We shifted from a regime of non-enforcement that privileged lawbreaking to a new regime in which the neighbors expected that law would be enforced. 

In addition to changing the workload of the municipal court and city staff in ways that made them have to work harder, our approach to and success with restorative justice raised troubling and legitimate issues concerning the structure of Boulder’s criminal justice system. Our chief allies were municipal Judge Sheila Carrigan and her staff member, Ms. Loree Greco. Exactly where in the criminal justice system our restorative justice efforts should have attached is a good question. We began to wonder whether the restorative justice coordinator would be better housed with the prosecutor or perhaps independently of the prosecutor and court. This was a legitimate bureaucratic and structural issue, one that we would have been happy to discuss and attempt to solve. Unfortunately, before we could do that, Judge Carrigan was fired. 

Ultimately, I have concluded that our restorative justice efforts were doomed to failure because the city of Boulder—its council, many staff, and many of its citizens—simply are not committed to the rule of law. Boulder hovers between extreme liberalism in some cases—protecting open space or prairie dogs or, more recently, in declaring itself a bird sanctuary—while at the same time recoiling from enforcing other categories of laws, such as land-use, noise, and garbage regulations. Enforcement of its ordinances counts, in my view, as one of the fundamental things that a polity must do in order to call itself a polity. Enforcing the law is the basic attribute of the rule of law. Since I have left the Hill, there has been some improvement on this score, but neighbors still have to wrestle with against a legal culture in which the non-enforcement of laws is the background norm. 

The final lesson, then, is an important one for jurisdictions that are considering adopting more restorative approaches to issues of crime. Restorative justice is not an outlet for little polities that really do not want to enforce the law. In talking with city or university officials who express interest in adopting restorative practices, the first question that I now ask is whether the city or university is committed to enforcing its own laws. If the answer is no, then restorative justice cannot be their answer.  

Boulder presently has no restorative justice coordinator in its municipal court and, I suspect, will not fill the position for a long time, if ever. In my view, Boulder turned to restorative justice because city officials and staff were under the mistaken impression that restorative justice was a mushy approach that would give a trendy veneer to a general practice of non-enforcement. They were wrong, and that they were wrong should, I believe, be of some solace to conservatives who might view restorative justice suspiciously as a wacky liberal thing that one does while singing Kumbaya. Restorative justice fell on the Hill because restorative justice empowered members of the community to ask for more effective enforcement of Boulder’s laws in order to repair harm to the neighborhood and prevent more harm from happening. Restorative justice empowered us to make more demands on our local government. Meeting our demands would have meant that the city of Boulder would have had to enforce its own laws, which was something that the city of Boulder is not prepared to do.


Thomas D. Russell, Professor of Law, University of Denver

February 2004

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