The United States is the Incarceration Nation. We incarcerate more people in the United States than any other country in the world; with only 5% of the world’s population, we have almost 25% of its prisoners. Over 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the U.S., a disproportionate number coming from communities of color which has had devastating impacts socially and economically..
Colorado is not an exception to this pattern. We are incarcerating people at increasing rates, and then releasing them un-rehabilitated, unrepentant and unprepared to rejoin our communities. Over 50% of the people released from Colorado prisons return there within three years. Furthermore, prison costs are increasing at rates in excess of both the population and the crime rate. We spend more on prisons than on higher education. This pattern is unaffordable, unsustainable, and unjust.
We need to get smart on crime, not simply tough. We need to try something different and look at criminal justice through a different lens. We need to break the cycle and the recycling of people. It is time to move our justice system from punishment and retribution to collaboration, restoration and community building.
Restorative Justice is something different,- and we know it works. Restorative Justice regards criminal offenses as a breach of the relationship between the offender and the victim, and between the offender and the community. It focuses on accepting responsibility and repairing the harm to victims and the community. Restorative Justice gives offenders the opportunity to repair those relationships by meeting face to face with their victims and community members. It provides an opportunity to repair the harm to both.
Utilizing voluntary face to face conferences, guided by a trained facilitator, an offender can hear, first-hand, how his offense impacted the victim…and hear it directly from the victim. Victims can ask those questions that only the offender can answer and begin the process of healing. Restorative Justice conferences and dialogues conclude with a written agreement among the parties for the offender to repair the harm. If often includes an apology, as well as a commitment to perform some tangible acts to repair the relationship to the victim and the community. If the agreement is fully performed, in many cases the charges are dismissed. In other cases, restorative justice can be part of a sentence that includes probation or incarceration.
- Requires offenders to accept responsibility for their actions, express remorse and be willing to perform some acts to repair the harm;
- Focuses on harms done to victims, communities and relationships rather than on punishment, vengeance and retribution;
- Is victim centered; it empowers victims to participate in setting consequences and provides an opportunity to begin the healing process;
- Breaks the cycle of crime; ninety three percent of juvenile offenders who have been through restorative justice victim offender conferences do not re-offend.
Convinced of the importance of transforming our criminal justice system, I have sponsored three restorative justice bills. All have passed with bipartisan or unanimous support. Colorado is now nationally acclaimed for having the most robust and extensive restorative justice legislation in the nation. Pursuant to these bills, restorative justice is now available in the adult and juvenile justice systems for felonies, misdemeanors and petty offenses, in the Department of Corrections and the Division of Youth Corrections and in the schools. We have created a State Restorative Justice Council with stakeholder representatives from public safety, District Attorneys, Public Defenders, education, victim’s groups, parole and probation.
My last two bills authorized four juvenile pilot programs in which juveniles are diverted to restorative justice as a first option prior to filing of charges. If the juvenile participates in a victim offender dialogue, reaches an agreement to repair the harm and then fulfills the requirements of that agreement, then no charges are filed and the juvenile avoids the collateral consequences of a criminal record. The bills also provide for data collection to develop empirical evidence about cost savings, victim impacts and recidivism reduction to demonstrate the efficacy of restorative justice practices.
Looking ahead, I envision a criminal justice system in which restorative justice is the first and continuing option in juvenile and adult cases and in schools. As vice-chair of the House Judiciary Committee and a member of the Education Committee, I see firsthand how intertwined are the issues of education and criminal justice. If we want our young people to stay out of the criminal justice system, we must help them stay in school and learn from their youthful transgressions. Consequently, I see the continued expansion of restorative practices in schools to address misconduct. Zero tolerance policies and the use of suspensions and expulsions frequently lead to dropping out, thereby significantly contributing to the school to prison pipeline. Our future is our children and we need to do everything in our power to keep them in school and out of the criminal justice system. Since Columbine, over 100,000 Colorado school children have been referred to law enforcement and the courts for in-school misconduct. We can do better. Restorative practices are evidence based alternatives which have been proven to keep children in school, increase learning time and contribute to graduation rates.
I am committed to supporting the expansion of restorative justice nationwide. To do so, I have spoken at national conferences in Toledo, Fort Lauderdale and Charleston and participated in phone conferences with advocates throughout the United States, including New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, Georgia and California. Earlier this year, I was re-elected to the Advisory Board of the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice. Locally, I am a founding director of the Pikes Peak Restorative Justice Council and serve on the Manitou Springs Restorative Justice Council as well.
To learn more about restorative justice, read Howard Zehr’s seminal work, “Changing Lenses”, or his brief overview, “The Little Book of Restorative Justice”. Colorado restorative justice pioneer Beverly Title’s “Teaching Peace” is an anecdote filled book about the impact of restorative justice work in communities. You can also watch my YouTube video HERE or read a speech I gave at the Restorative Justice Symposium HERE