Let's say you wake up one morning to find that your garage has been painted with graffiti. You know the kid who did it, so you call the police.
Let's say the police decide that the kid should be held accountable for his actions, but shouldn't necessarily be caught up in the criminal justice system -- put on trial or incarcerated. Instead, the kid is referred to a juvenile diversion program, a restorative justice program if there's one in the community.
In a restorative justice program, the kid agrees to fully and actively participate in a process that involves the victim of his crime and neighbors from the community. Together, they work out an agreement. The kid will repaint the garage; he will restore the property to its original condition. He will agree not to repeat that kind of behavior. When the kid has completed his part of the agreement, a report goes back to the district attorney's office and the criminal charges are erased from the kid's record.
As Bill Groom, a Colorado Springs attorney and restorative justice enthusiast notes, the kid will have a chance to own up to his behavior -- honestly and completely -- without justification or excuses.
"Why is it so hard for people to be responsible for their mistakes when others can see them so clearly?" Groom asked. A former white-collar offender himself who spent three years in federal prison when he was a just-out-of-school lawyer, Groom talked with hundreds of inmates during his incarceration. Not one of them, he says, took full responsibility for the crime that put him in jail.
And, he says, he recognized a deep flaw in the system.
"Our legal system treats crime as a violation of a statute, not as a violation against people," he said.
In Colorado Springs, Groom and others are trying to get neighborhood organizations to adopt restorative justice programs for juvenile offenses, a system, he says, that will demand responsibility and accountability from the perpetrator and allow the victim to heal -- all with compassion and respect.
"The idea that you can make people better just by punishing them is inherently defective," said Groom. "And so is the notion that environmental factors somehow justify the crime.
"When an offender is able to take complete responsibility for his actions, he can feel true remorse and express it to the victim. He can do what is needed to begin healing the wound that results from all crime."
-- Kathryn Eastburn, photo by Sean Cayton
Groom's project is a recipient of a grant from the Independence Community Fund, a charitable arm of the Independent. To find out more about the Neighborhood Restorative Justice Project call Bill Groom at 444-8644 or e-mail