How victim rights became a juggernaut shaping spending, laws and the future of punishment

Newly elected as a state representative, Pete Lee hit the Capitol last January fired up with big ideas. The biggest of them all was the restorative-justice bill he introduced shortly after the session began.

A concept borrowed from Native American traditions and other cultures, restorative justice offers an alternative to the conventional crime-and-punishment approach of the legal system. The emphasis is on "restoring" and healing a community damaged by crime — by, for example, letting victims have more say in the justice process and requiring transgressors to admit their guilt and agree to reparations, such as fixing up vandalized property, instead of simply spending time behind bars.

A Colorado Springs Democrat and criminal defense attorney, Lee had worked with juveniles in a restorative-justice program in El Paso County and had been impressed with the results. "We had very low recidivism rates, and the kids accepted responsibility for what they did," he says. "So I became a zealot."

Many prosecutors are skeptical of the touchy-feely aspects of restorative-justice programs; they regard the approach as far more effective in dealing with juvenile delinquency and property crimes than violent offenses. But Lee, whose wife works as a restorative-justice facilitator, believes that a focus on healing can be useful in a wide range of criminal cases, to victims and offenders alike.

"In 25 years of practice in the criminal courts, I can count on one hand the number of times I saw an offender shake hands with a victim and offer a sincere apology," he says. "There's that expression in snowboarding, 'Go big or go home.' I wanted to introduce restorative justice to the adult criminal code and put it into the schools and the Department of Corrections."

Lee wasn't proposing a change in sentencing laws or a costly new treatment regimen, just an advisement to victims and offenders that restorative justice might be an option — along with a pilot program in prisons for "victim-offender conferences" when appropriate. He expected his bill to have strong support from victim advocacy groups. But when House Bill 1032 came up for public comment, two of the most powerful voices in Colorado criminal-justice circles were raised to oppose it.

"Nancy Lewis came up to the hearing table with Tom Raynes," Lee recalls. "I was very surprised that they were linked arm in arm."

Raynes is the director of the Colorado District Attorneys' Council, a group that provides services and lobbying for prosecutors across the state. Lewis is the executive director of the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance, a nonprofit that works closely with district attorneys and various state agencies. COVA is relatively small in numbers — its official membership is less than a thousand people — but with an annual budget of more than $800,000, a yearly conference that draws greater attendance than two national victim-advocacy gatherings, and strong ties to the law enforcement community, it's by far the most influential victim-rights group in Colorado.

While supportive of restorative justice in theory, Raynes and Lewis had several practical concerns about Lee's bill. They wondered what standards would be required for the professional facilitators who were supposed to determine if a particular offender and victim could meet face-to-face without further trauma to the victim. Most of all, they wanted clear language that victims were in charge of any restorative-justice effort and could decline to participate at any point.

"You can't say to a victim, 'You have to talk to your offender,'" Lewis says. "That's just ludicrous."

Lee was stunned. It had always been his intent that the program would be voluntary and initiated by victims, he says; the idea of dragging people into a healing process against their will made no sense at all. But he hadn't made that point clear to the organized victim lobby, a force he'd failed to consult before drafting his bill.

"I didn't think COVA would oppose my bill," he says now. "I thought they would embrace it. So I buttonholed them after the hearing and said, 'Okay, let's see what we can do to address your concerns.'"

Lee had learned a lesson that every freshman lawmaker learns sooner or later: If the victim lobby has problems with your bill, you've got problems. What began as a modest rights campaign decades ago on behalf of survivors of domestic violence, centered on the notion that victims of crime deserve to be heard, has grown into a formidable national movement shaping legislation, sentencing policy and public debate on crime and punishment. The movement is particularly strong in Colorado, which has some of the most far-reaching victim-rights legislation in the country — and an ample bureaucracy to administer it.

This year, more than $30 million in public monies will be spent in Colorado in the name of victim assistance and advocacy. Some of it comes from court surcharges imposed in criminal cases and is paid directly to crime victims and family members to cover everything from medical costs to burial fees. Some of it pays the salaries of full-time victim advocates in police departments and prosecutors' offices. A surprising amount, around a fifth of the total, consists of state and federal grants doled out to law enforcement agencies, nonprofits like COVA, and other entities for conferences, training, salaries and research that may have no direct impact on victims at all.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Some good points in here but the reporting is pretty one-sided.

For instance: Why no mention of the fact that the while COVA was urging their supporters to contact Rep. Duran and ask her to vote against HB 1287 the Pendulum Foundation was making the exact same plea to their supporters to get Rep. Duran to change her vote?

Also, you point out COVA's lobbying efforts several times but I didn't see any mention of the fact that the Pendulum Foundation is a client of J. William Artist & Associates, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Colorado.

I freely admit my bias - a family member was killed by one of the men whose sentence would have been retroactively reduced under HB 1287 - but if you're going to claim objectivity in your reporting, you should at least make an effort to not let your bias color the story.


I'd like to publish some of these comments in our print Letters to the Editor section -- ideally with your full name/town. Let me know if that's okay at


COVA has always been a direct arm of law enforcement and is so disconnected from the needs and voices of victims they claim to represent. They are far too systems oriented and it is abhorrent that money that VALE takes from direct service agencies is being given to COVA through the nepotism of personal relationships that exist between Nancy Lewis and her hand-picked board of directors.

On Fire
On Fire

Okay. Apparently COVA sees some victims as worth helping and others as not. The victims worth helping include abusive parents and the poor feeble prosecutors who are just trying to build political careers on the backs of abused children. The victims not worth helping are abused children themselves. Got it.


This was an amazing story. It's finally time that people started taking a look at the money trail of these organizations, especially COVA. They've been in the pockets of the systems-based agencies for years and get money funneled to them for their support. It's no accident that the Denver VALE administrator and co-administrator both serve on COVA's board and routinely take money away from direct-service agencies and hand it over to COVA. They do not speak for victims and I applaud the many agencies who have stood up to COVA to truly speak for their clients. Many of those folks have had their funding taken away by COVA's board members, who handle so much of the victim services funds in Colorado. Shame on COVA.


Thank you, Mr. Prendergast, for a very enlightening and in-depth story. Also, thank you to Mr. Lee for trying to find an outside the box solution to crime and community healing. The program might need finesse, but I believe it is an important step in the right direction. I hope that other Coloradoans support the measure. Catherine Keske.


Advocates for changing sentencing laws for juveniles serving life have always acknowledged that this issue is extremely complicated. There is no denying the pain of the victims and we advocates for sentencing reform have never done so. However in the past when we tried to introduce changes in the laws, we have been summarily dismissed by COVA and many district attorneys. "No, no, no." "The system is just fine the way it is." Our experience has been similar to Rep. Lee's. One year when we wrote voluntary restorative justice language into a bill, victims groups opposed it saying, "It has to be voluntary." When we pointed out that the provision WAS voluntary, they ignored the wording, pretending that it didn't say precisely what it DID say. No compromise, no changes are needed, regardless of evolving public opinion, scientific advances in the area of teen brain development, studies showing that juveniles receive harsher sentences than adults for the same crimes, and recent supreme court rulings.

We have enough obstreperousness on a national level. We in Colorado must be more thoughtful than that.

Kudos to Alan Prendergrast for a fresh look at a difficult issue. Victims are not a monolithic group and victims' rights groups, such as COVA, would be well served to expand their vision to include more restorative justice and to listen to the voices of victims who seek a measure of redemption and rehabilitation for offenders rather than endless punishment.

Somewhere amid all this pain and destruction there are areas of agreement and healing. I hope Alan's article and Rep. Pete Lee's legislation will be a step in that direction.Mary Ellen Johnson, Executive DirectorThe Pendulum Foundation