I'm Sorry, Really I Am

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

In the circles, the offending youth typically sits between a friend or sibling and a parent. Hunt and Escamilla sit across from one another, and the CAB members sit together. The circle is so close, all knees touch.

Usually the CAB sentencings include letters of apology from the youth, and a requirement that he paint over graffiti and spend extra hours working in the community with church groups or schools. (But in one meeting, CAB members ordered a young offender to draft plans for a doghouse that one of the CAB members eventually built for himself. The boy had noted that he was good at drafting, so the CAB members saw their order as a way to use one of his strengths to reach a solution.)

Even without long-term results, data or opinion polls, state bureaucrats are widely accepting restorative justice as the way to go.

In March, Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter traveled to Washington, D.C., to pick up a federal grant for $89,000 to fund the community prosecution program. Denver was one of just five cities to receive the money, and part of it will go to the CABs. Seven days later, Governor Bill Owens signed HB 99-1156, which amended wording in state juvenile-justice laws to embrace the CAB system.

The bill reads: "The general assembly finds that the juvenile justice system should seek to repair such harm [from youth crimes] and that victims and communities should be provided with the opportunity to elect to participate actively in a restorative process that would hold the juvenile offender accountable for his or her offense."

Inside the CAB meeting at the Southwest Council building, the seventeen-year-old spray-painter takes his seat, and CAB member Al Montoya purposely intimidates him by staring him down.

Montoya lets into the boy once he gets his chance. Before he begins, he tells the group, "If I get out of line here, stop me."

"Stop and think what you were doing," he tells the youth as he points to his temple. "Think of who you are doing it to. It is me, her, him--all of us. The community. It disturbs me a whole lot to see that [the graffiti]. Think if it was your property. If it were your dad's property? How would you feel?"

Montoya waits for an answer, and the lanky youth slumps in his chair and digs his hands deep into the pockets of his baggy leather jacket.

"I'd feel bad," he mumbles.
"That's right!" Montoya says.
But if the boy's scared, he doesn't show it.

Instead, he's charismatic, surprisingly agreeable and, quite understandably, eager to end the meeting. But he also stops well short of taking full responsibility for his actions, which, at its core, undercuts the stated purpose of the CAB. "Anybody can apologize, but that ain't going to get the graffiti off my wall," Montoya says.

The youth says he was only driving the car the night he was caught, but he's tagged many buildings before, so he figures, "It was just my time." In fact, he was only driving as a favor to one of his friends, he says.

A CAB member suggests that part of his punishment should include speaking to young children at schools because he's "good with people."

"I already do that with my little cousins," he responds proudly. "I try to put it in their heads that they have to do the right thing and make their own way." More than once, the youth's colorful stories of Denver's tagging underworld so divert the purpose of the meeting that Hunt has to "bring it back to what we're here for."

While the CAB members brainstorm a list of "solutions" that include painting fences and doing yard work for the elderly, the youth, who now senses that the members are smitten with his charming personality, playfully warns them, "Don't get crazy now."

"Check him out!" Hunt says.
In the end, his agreement with the board is like most others: He has to write letters of apology to the owners of the buildings he tagged, perform eight hours of community service painting over graffiti (which he can do with his father, who, ironically, paints over graffiti for a living) and spend 26 hours as a mentor to a Little League team.

In all, the hours alone surpass the thirty that are required by the juvenile court system. At the end of the May 5 meeting, the youth signs a contract with the members to complete the work by August 1.

During the punch-and-cookies get-together afterward, Montoya says of the initial stare-down: "I wanted him to know that I was serious." When the youth overhears Montoya's comment, he says, "I thought homeboy was going to go off on me."

The youth finished his sentence this past Tuesday, nearly three weeks ahead of schedule.

Despite the punishment, the boy's own father says the sentencing was too lenient. "Eight hours?" he asks. "Phhh. Should be more like sixty."

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