Longform

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.