Jonathan Price had spoken for more than the allotted three minutes. He glanced over, and noticed someone had unplugged the timer.
The state lawmakers continued to listen to his story. Some of them had tears in their eyes. It was last March and Price was in Denver to talk about House Bill 08-1117, which would encourage courts to send juvenile offenders through a progressive, voluntary program called restorative justice.
Price says it helped him through his "accident."
Back in June 2005, Price was 17 and looking forward to his senior year at Sand Creek High School with his "posse" a tight group of friends, mostly military brats, who had spent their high school years invading each other's houses like family, having sleepovers and playing Halo. When they were younger, they caused the "boys will be boys" brand of trouble stealing bulbs out of porch lights, ringing doorbells and running away. Now they were acting their age more often.
One day, Price and buddies Terence Henderson and Marcus (last name not available) decided to head to Price's place. Marcus called shotgun. Henderson insisted on riding on top of the trunk.
Price began driving. He rounded a curve and paused at a stop sign. That's when they noticed Henderson was gone.
The boy had fallen off the back and hit his head. A day later, he was dead.
Dealing with the pain
It was hell. Not just for the Hendersons, who lost their only child, but for the entire community. Sand Creek kids, devastated, responded by threatening Price. Security had to escort him around the school.
"I was forced to grow up because I had to deal with the courts and the fees and seeing how it affected my family and his," Price remembers.
Now 21, he says the experience is still very painful. He's found comfort in his faith, community service, outreach (giving presentations describing his experience to other teens), and a restorative justice conference.
Through the latter, Price got to sit down with his family, the Hendersons and a moderator. There, Price learned he had Terence's dad's forgiveness, though Terence's mom didn't feel the same way. Either way, Price says, it was productive.
"Restorative justice really helped me to see that what I was doing was affecting someone else besides myself," he says. "Terence was a son to somebody."
That's at the heart of the restorative justice idea: Let victims and offenders hash it out in a controlled setting, ask questions, express emotions, and together decide on a way to improve the situation. And it's easy to like, since it's cheap and believed to reduce recidivism, while giving crime victims a greater sense of empowerment and offenders a greater sense of responsibility.
HB 08-1117, authored by local attorney and former state Senate candidate Pete Lee, passed almost unanimously last year, with lots of local support. It was quickly signed into law by Gov. Bill Ritter.
But it only gave judges another option for juvenile offenders. The bill's language didn't require them to use it. Same goes for a recent endorsement from the Colorado Springs City Council.
Jack Ruszczyk, El Paso County's chief probation officer and staunch supporter of restorative justice, says there's little political will to see the concept used widely. It's applied mostly to juveniles committing petty crimes with limited effect.
"It's seen as weak on crime, and it's unfortunate," he says. "Most people in their personal lives would subscribe to these kind of values, where you take responsibility."
Many Colorado communities have had restorative justice in schools and courts. Manitou Springs and its School District 14 have been working with a nonprofit for several years to provide the program. But the presence in Colorado Springs remains small, mostly limited to juveniles. Workout Ltd., which also offers career training to youth, started restorative justice in 2001 and does mediations with about 10 to 15 kids a month, most referred by the criminal justice system.
Program director Adah MacIndoe says kids respond well, but she feels many need more and funding just isn't there.
Advocates are pursuing more money and local participation, through outreach and conferences. Jeannette Holtham says restorative justice can work with traditional courts. (Some advocates would prefer to see it replace the established system of punishment.) Holtham founded the Springs' Youth Transformation Center, a restorative justice nonprofit, in 2005. She says it changes the way people look at their crimes.
"You throw them in a jail cell," she says, "and they lick their wounds and think they're the victim."
But changing the criminal justice system is never easy. Lynn Lee, co-chair of Pikes Peak Restorative Justice Council, which focuses on educating the public, says changes will come from the power of people, not laws.
"It will only make a difference if those of us who are really interested in restorative justice go out and make people aware," she says.
And that's where people like Price, who have benefited from restorative justice and can speak about it with heart, come in. Price remembers that day he testified before the state assembly with a shy pride.
"Afterwards," he says, "I had the big guys come up to me and tell me my story made a difference."
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