A man who accidentally fired a gun inside his apartment. A woman who was harassed by a man in an Uber. A person who vandalized a building.
Those are among the 65 minor criminal cases sent to the Denver district attorney’s year-old restorative justice program — a hands-on alternative to the traditional court system that focuses on the people involved in the crime, the impact on the larger community and how offenders who take responsibility can repair the damage done by their actions.
Unlike the adversarial, largely punitive and often cookie-cutter approach in the regular court system, the restorative justice process creates deeply individualized responses to crimes through meetings between offenders, community members and sometimes victims.
Defendants are referred to the program by the district attorney’s office, who so far during the first year have focused on people facing misdemeanor charges, those with only a single pending case against them and those who were not in jail.
If the participants successfully complete the restorative justice process, which typically takes between three and six months, then the district attorney’s office dismisses the criminal charges against them.
The process is facilitated by The Conflict Center, a Denver nonprofit, which hosts a series of meetings with the defendants and, if they choose to participate, the victims of the crimes. The sessions culminate in a meeting between the defendant, victim, at least two community members and typically two neutral facilitators.
During that meeting, the defendant, victim and community members agree on steps the defendant must take to repair the harm caused by his or her actions. For the man who sexually harassed a woman in an Uber, that meant an hours-long discussion with the woman about the impact of his actions and reading a book on appropriate interactions between men and women, District Attorney Beth McCann said.
“If he’d gone through the regular criminal system, he would have probably pled to some lesser charge, and had probation, and the probation would have been minimal, at best, so he would have reported in maybe once a month and then the case would have been over,” she said. “But this way, he actually presumably learned something, and she also got the satisfaction of knowing that he was hearing her, versus in court where she would have been told, ‘Don’t have anything to do with him,’ and he would not have been allowed to have any conversation with her.”
In other cases, defendants have agreed to attend parenting classes or therapy. One man who was charged with unlawful discharge after he unintentionally fired a gun and damaged the his apartment building agreed to clean and organize the messy trash area, said Christina Brown-Haugen, who is heading up the program for the district attorney’s office.
“It brings in voices that are not typically heard in our traditional justice system,” said Patrick Howard, a volunteer facilitator. He said participants on all sides are often wary when they start, but usually open up as the process goes on.
So far the program most frequently has handled misdemeanor assault, child abuse and theft cases.
McCann hopes to expand the breadth of the restorative justice process and rely on it as a regular option for misdemeanor and felony cases in the future, she said. Of the 65 people referred to the program since it started last year, 35 finished successfully and 24 cases were still pending by mid-November. Another six people withdrew before beginning the process, some opting instead to fight their charges in court.
“In the broader context of the whole reimagining the police and reimagining the criminal justice system, or the prosecutor’s office, in my big scheme, the criminal justice system will evolve, so that it is inclusive of a lot of different options,” McCann said. “…Do we always need to go charge in court, have a trial, have a plea bargain? Or, maybe as we examine new ideas in criminal justice this is a way we move the system, the bigger system.”
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