I'm Sorry, Really I Am
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.
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."
Visit www.westword.com to read related Westword stories.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.