I'm Sorry, Really I Am

Communities rely on old techniques for a new style of justice.

No lawyers, jurors or judges are in this small room in southwest Denver, but a seventeen-year-old boy is about to be sentenced for spray-painting four buildings along Federal Boulevard.

Minutes before he is led into the room by his father, five community members--including the store manager of one of the spray-painted buildings and two retirees from the neighborhood--and two representatives from the Denver district attorney's office discuss the boy's case.

A senior at Kennedy High School, he was arrested in the back parking lot of the Sherwin-Williams paint store at 490 South Federal Boulevard in October and has already spent a weekend in jail, explains Diego Hunt, the community-justice coordinator from the DA's office. The boy pleaded guilty to vandalism and, as part of his sentence, was required to perform thirty hours of community service. Instead of having his probation officer decide what that service will be, as is the usual route, the boy has agreed to allow the members of his community to decide for him.

This gathering at the Southwest Improvement Council building, at 1000 South Lowell Boulevard, is where that will happen. The group of people who will decide is called a Community Accountability Board.

"The idea here," Hunt reminds the CAB members--who have each completed two days of training on sentencing--"is that whatever you think is appropriate will satisfy [the boy's probation]. A lot of people plead guilty, but they don't say they were wrong, and that means they're not taking responsibility for what they've done."

The members nod their heads, taking Hunt's directions seriously.
Then Hunt jokes, "You could ask someone to lick and stuff envelopes for thirty hours if you want to."

Like most jokes that get good laughs, the comment is laced with more than a hint of truth: They can do what they want. "But we want something that will benefit the neighborhood more," Hunt says. Before continuing, he asks each board member to sign a strict confidentiality waiver which tells them to keep the contents of the meeting a secret. (Until now, no reporter has been allowed to attend a CAB meeting.)

The CAB program, which began one year ago with little fanfare, is being pitched as a new style of justice that gives the victims of community crimes a chance to confront juvenile perpetrators. In turn, the kids have to face the people they have harmed. It is based on the theory of "restorative justice," which is fast gaining praise in Denver from some community members, politicians and law enforcement officials who are hoping to reduce the recidivism rate--especially among juvenile offenders.

"Restorative justice has been part of an ancient legal system," Hunt says. "But our system has kind of lost that. This is trying to merge the traditional with new justice systems."

Like any effective revolution, restorative justice begins with controlling language. Youths in the CAB program aren't "sentenced"; they "work out solutions with the community." And they aren't "guilty"; rather, they are "accountable for their actions."

As Hunt likes to say, "We don't look at sanctions or punishments. We're looking at solutions and agreements."

But the number of solutions and agreements has disappointed the program's organizers. Since it began, just fifty kids have agreed to participate, and not all of them have completed the process. At least fourteen dropped out or were terminated from the program. In one case, a mother pulled her son out just one day before his CAB meeting because she feared it would embarrass her.

It is far too early to tell if restorative justice has dented the recidivism rate of youth offenders, and the practice still has an early hurdle to clear: Though community members love the idea, juvenile probation officers are finding it to be a tough sell. "How can I get a fourteen-year-old to agree to take on the CAB along with his diversion program?" probation officer Dawn Johnson asked Hunt and CAB facilitator Margaret Escamilla during an April 5 CAB training meeting. "The only teeth we're going to have with CABs is if the judge requires CABs."

But judges can't yet require them for exactly the reasons Johnson notes: Putting a CAB "on top" of the diversion program--the normal punishment for youth offenders--could be considered unfair punishment, since the CAB-sanctioned community service often goes beyond traditional community service. That leaves it to probation officers to sell the idea to the parents of juvenile delinquents on a volunteer basis. (If a youth agrees to the CAB program, then fails to fulfill his obligation, it is the same as violating the terms of his juvenile diversion program--and it sends him right back into the system.) Only youths who commit misdemeanor crimes or simple assault are eligible for the program. So far, Hunt and Escamilla have held CAB meetings in Globeville, southwest Denver and the West Highland/Sloan Lake neighborhoods. (Hunt, however, has just taken a job with a private law firm and will no longer run the CAB program.) And, Hunt says, there's a long list of community members eager to serve on CABs.

Escamilla, who began as a volunteer on a CAB and now works for the district attorney's office, says the process allows parents and their children to see the impact of their actions on the community. "When they are sitting in that circle with their neighbors and looking into their eyes, it can be very powerful," she says. Many times, the perpetrator breaks into tears and begs for forgiveness.

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