The author of Colorado's restorative justice program is going back for a rewrite.
First elected in 2010, state Rep. Pete Lee came to the Legislature at a disadvantage, as a Democrat in a Republican-controlled House. Despite this, his bill to institute restorative justice statewide — a practice in which an offender and his or her victim meet for therapeutic purposes — passed unanimously.
While that was a highlight for the freshman representative, Republican House Minority Leader Mark Waller says the bill passed only because of Republicans' willingness to compromise.
"We were set to kill his bill in committee," says Waller, "and this can not be understated: We worked with this guy, knowing how important it was for him. We gave him extra time. We worked significantly with Pete Lee on this piece of legislation."
What resulted is what Waller calls "a feel-good bill." But now, to Waller's chagrin, Lee is eyeing more of what he wanted two years ago. And with Democrats in control of the upcoming session, which starts Jan. 9, it might be a good bet.
According to Lee, "You can call it Restorative Justice 2.0." The idea, he says, is to increase options for juveniles looking at misdemeanor charges, and even some felonies (which could include assault, burglary and a number of drug crimes), and get them into the program before prosecutors press charges.
"If they are deemed suitable, by virtue of the fact that they accept responsibility for their offenses, and they are remorseful and contrite, we would divert them into a victim-offender process, before the charges are even filed," Lee says. "It basically operates on the premise that it is better to keep juveniles out of the criminal-justice system, and that the best thing that you can do is have them acknowledge responsibility."
The way the system works now, restorative justice conferences are initiated by the victim only.
"We are looking at a modification," Lee says, "to allow offenders to request participation in the process."
It's unclear how popular this option has been locally; calls to the Fourth Judicial District Attorney's Office were not returned. But the executive director of the Colorado District Attorneys' Council, Tom Raynes, says he's working closely with Lee.
"My concern is that we have 22 jurisdictions, and most of them already have some type of diversion program that they utilize one way or another," Raynes says, "but not necessarily a restorative justice program. So my concern is that we don't negatively disrupt or impact good programs that we already have in place by mandating a new program."
While he says that he understands Lee's frustration that his 2010 bill was essentially "suggestive legislation," Raynes cautions that any legislation that mandates restorative justice conferences might be problematic.
"One of my concerns with the most recent draft" of Lee's legislation, says Raynes, "is the use of the word 'shall.' If [the offenders] are less than 16 and they commit certain crimes, they shall be given this restorative justice program [option]. When you start saying to the district attorneys you shall do this, the immediate question is, who's going to pay for it? The state's not going to give them the money."
Plus, he adds, "you are starting to mess in serious areas of D.A. discretion."
Lee points out that his new bill is a "work in progress," but that costs under the new bill, just as under current law, will be on the offender.
"It's a no-lose proposition," says Lee. "If the offender goes into the process and is unsuccessful, then the case goes back to the criminal justice system."
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