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How Rep. Pete Lee is creating a "kinder, juster" criminal justice system in Colorado 

A just fight

click to enlarge Rep. Pete Lee - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Rep. Pete Lee

December 21, 1995. Sharletta Evans has driven to her niece's house in Denver's Park Hill neighborhood.

She walks to the door with her 17- and 20-year-old nieces, leaving in the car her two sleeping sons: 6-year-old Calvin and 3-year-old Casson, or "Biscuit" as the family calls him. The night before, there was a drive-by shooting in the area, and, just to be safe, she's come to pick up her 3-year-old grandniece. She's not planning to stay, just grab the girl and go.

But as she steps inside, gunfire erupts. BANG, BANG, BANG! BANG, BANG, BANG! The house — full of women and children — erupts in chaos. One bullet tears through a woman's down coat sleeve, narrowly missing her body. The bullets keep coming.

When the report of 21 shots finally fades, everyone inside is miraculously OK. Evans grabs her grandniece and rushes back out to her car. It has obviously been hit, but she begins driving away. Two blocks later, one of her nieces sitting in the backseat checks on Calvin. He's fine. Then Evans hears her screaming. "Casson, Casson, breathe!"

She pulls over. Police are called. She is holding Biscuit. She is covered in blood, not sure exactly where it's coming from. He is still alive. The paramedics arrive.

They are too late. Sharletta is holding her youngest child when he takes his last breath.

This is how she'll remember her baby for 20 years. A tape on repeat. Steps retraced a million times. All the ways this could have turned out differently. All the ways Casson could have lived.

And then, at the end, her boy limp in her arms.

A complicated series of events connects Sharletta Evans to a man she would come to admire — as one sees a comrade in a righteous battle. It all started in the mid-2000s, when Pete Lee, a longtime criminal defense attorney whose own life (in stark contrast to Evans') had followed an arc of professional achievement and personal satisfaction, semi-retired and became fully immersed in a singular passion.

"I was skiing 50 days of winter," he recalls. When the snow disappeared from the resorts, he'd head up Pikes Peak for a few more runs. He wasn't bored, he says. But his wife, Lynn Lee, isn't so sure.

Either way, the semi-retirement proved short-lived. After being encouraged by friends and colleagues — and disappointed by an absentee Democratic candidate he had initially supported — Lee ran for office. At the time, he'd sprouted an interest in changing the state's criminal justice system. It was rooted in his long work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, his own frustrations as a defense attorney and his sense that the system could work better.

His frustration was like a tinderbox. The match was an organization called Workout Ltd.

An agency of Pikes Peak United Way, Workout started in 1974 with the goal of rehabilitating youth offenders by allowing them to work to pay their victims for the damage they caused. The idea was two-fold. First, that it was better for a child to attempt to make reparations for a crime than simply to be punished, and second, that by helping a child understand the hurt he or she caused, the child becomes more mature and less likely to do the same thing again. And it worked — a lot better than traditional methods, such as incarceration, that led to revolving-door recidivism.

"The more I saw it, the more I became convinced that was a heck of a better way," Lee recalls.

Lynn, too, became enamored of Workout. A retired special ed teacher who had raised two sons with Lee, along with a daughter of her own, she had a soft spot for children, and was moved by how the program seemed to transform kids emotionally. She started volunteering as a mediator, connecting crime victims with youth offenders for sit-down talks that promoted understanding and remorse.

Pete served on Workout's board, quickly discovering the effects of such programs, and the way that juveniles respond to criminal justice and trauma differently than adults, because their brains are still developing.

"I guess I try to figure out why kids do what they do," he says. "I mean, they're totally impetuous and impulsive and lacking in rationality. And, you know, my kids were a little mischievous when they were growing up. And it makes you wonder why some kids turn out to be Dylann Roofs and some kids turn out to be chess champions."

What started as a hobby became a mission. In 2010, Lee, a Democrat, was elected as the state representative from District 18 in Colorado Springs, spanning from Manitou Springs to the Old North End to east-central neighborhoods and south to Cheyenne Road.

"It's very entertaining," he says. "I work 14, 16 hours a day and seven days a week. I never don't work. I love it."

While Lee, who will be term-limited out of the House seat after next year, says he's proud to be a "business Democrat" and notes that he's run almost as many economic bills as criminal justice ones, the latter issue quickly began defining him. He wasted no time using what he'd learned at Workout to begin transforming the state's criminal justice system, both for adults and juveniles (see "Pete's cheat sheet"). Among his achievements are laws that have brought restorative justice into the criminal justice system — most often meetings between offenders and victims with a mediator (and sometimes other parties, like community members), intended to promote responsibility and understanding, and give offenders a chance to repair the harm they've inflicted. He's also responsible for reforms for juvenile detentions and sentencing, changes to the parole system, easier ways to block access to certain criminal records (so that a crime won't prevent someone from, say, getting a job), and even something called the "Justice Reinvestment Crime Prevention Initiative," which cuts the length of sentences for technical violations of parole, using the money saved to strengthen high-crime communities.

In part, he says, he has been led by his head — urged along by a sort of obsession with solving a problem, and creating a more efficient, effective system. But there's heart, too. Especially when it comes to the kids, many of whom enter the system with past traumas.

"We incarcerate more people in the United States than any other country in the world," Lee says. "Are we the meanest criminal people in the world, or is there something wrong with our system?"

At midnight, just hours after the shooting, Sharletta Evans retreated to her bathroom.

"I was in such agony about the absence of Casson, and that he was gone," she remembers.

Then in her early 30s, she had been a born-again Christian since Casson's birth three years before. Behind the closed door, she says she was visited by the Holy Spirit, who asked her, "Will you forgive? Have you considered forgiving?"

"And I said, 'God, is that you?' And in that moment... I said, 'Yes, I'll forgive.' And from that point on is when I felt the relief, and then three days later they found out who killed my son."

Three boys were arrested — two 15-year-olds and a 16-year-old. Raymond Johnson, the older boy, was charged with firing the shot that killed Casson. Weeks later, Evans recalls watching him enter a courtroom in shackles.

"When I looked at him, he turns to me, and I'm saying, 'Wow, he's just a kid,'" she recalls. "And it was like his chest opened up and I could see his heart was not what they said it was. His heart was not this notorious gang member running around killing kids. This is not who I see. When I looked at him, it was like I was looking at him through the eyes of God."

click to enlarge Sharletta Evans holds a photo of her 3-year-old son, Casson, who was murdered in 1995. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Sharletta Evans holds a photo of her 3-year-old son, Casson, who was murdered in 1995.

In the years before Casson's death, the nation's crime rates were peaking, having climbed since the 1960s. The Atlantic noted, "The crack-cocaine epidemic in the mid-1980s added fuel to the fire, and handgun-related homicides more than doubled between 1985 and 1990."

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation lists crime reports dating to the late 1990s. Notably, there were 187 homicides in 1999 compared with 172 in 2015, their most recent report — despite Colorado's population explosion. In 1993, Denver's "Summer of Violence" left 74 dead.

The 1990s were the age of the "superpredator," a time when politicians ran on tough-on-crime policies like three-strikes-you're-out laws, and prosecutors pushed to try teens, and even pre-teens, as adults in murder cases, and lock them up for life.

But the crime trend didn't continue. As The Atlantic further notes, by the end of the 1990s, "the homicide rate plunged 42 percent nationwide. Violent crime decreased by one-third."

Believe it or not, violent crime rates are still low compared to recent decades. The FBI's Crime in the United States report for 2015 found that violent crimes rose 3.9 percent (to 372.6 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants) from 2014 to 2015, but the rate was still almost half of the 20-year high reached in 1996.

There are many theories as to why crime rose, notably among youths, and then dropped off so suddenly. But the truth is, no one really knows why. What is known is that the laws of the 1980s and 1990s stuck around long after crime began to decline.

In Colorado, a 1998 Division of Criminal Justice report notes, "In 1985, [House Bill] 1320 doubled the maximum penalties of the presumptive ranges for all felony classes and mandated that parole be granted at the discretion of the Parole Board. (As a result of this legislation, the average length of stay projected for new [corrections] commitments nearly tripled from 20 months in 1980 to 57 months in 1989.)"

Recent laws have cut away at those tough penalties in Colorado, but incarceration rates remain high. The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform, found there are 2.2 million people in U.S. prisons and jails, a 500 percent increase over the past 40 years. And that increase, the Project stated, was driven more by changes in law and policy than changes in crime rates. After dropping off in 2010, Colorado correctional populations are also on the rise, according to a January 2017 report from the Division of Criminal Justice concluding the Colorado prison population is expected to increase 9.9 percent by 2023, from 19,619 to 21,569.

Lawmakers and the courts nationwide, taking notice of the trend, have begun reconsidering their methods.

Notably, in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles and made that decision retroactive, impacting 1,200 to 1,500 cases, according to juvenile advocates. In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that those sentenced as teens must have a chance to argue for their release — including some kids locked up in the 1990s in Colorado who were now adults and had lived their lives thinking they'd never leave prison.

When Lee entered the Legislature in 2011, he brought along a signature bill. House Bill 1032 was the state's first major play in restorative justice, establishing its availability for some juvenile and adult offenders in the Department of Correction, the Division of Youth Corrections (DYC) and schools. The bill, which passed with more than 40 sponsors, didn't mandate the program but simply made it available, allowing a remorseful offender to speak to his victims with a moderator's help.

It was this bill that allowed Sharletta Evans to meet with Raymond Johnson in 2012, and his accomplice, Paul Littlejohn in 2016. And it was that first restorative justice meeting that ended up bringing Lee and Evans together on a common mission.

At the time of the law's passage, then-State Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, (also a former prosecutor and current El Paso County Commissioner) recalls some talk of conflict of interest — Lynn Lee was now working in restorative justice, though she says most of her work was on a volunteer basis, and it often cost her money. While Lynn has remained in the restorative justice business, and serves on the board for the Colorado Restorative Justice Coordinating Council and the Pikes Peak Restorative Justice Council, Waller says any suspicions that Pete Lee is motivated by self-enrichment have fallen away over the years as legislators have watched him work tirelessly for system reforms.

Lee followed up his 2011 restorative justice bill with 2013's House Bill 1254, establishing a pilot program in four jurisdictions across the state to promote pre-filing diversion to restorative justice for juveniles facing charges for certain lower-level crimes. District attorneys got to choose the kids who went into the program before they were charged. If the kids completed the program, they were never charged. Juvenile offenders were given a chance not only to talk to their victims, but also to work with them on a plan to repair the harm done.

Lee initially was hopeful for drastic change.

"I really wanted to expand restorative justice throughout the state and what's called the New Zealand model," he says. In that country, kids default into restorative justice as the first option. "I was working with the [Colorado Restorative Justice Coordinating Council] and they thought that was a good way to go, but I couldn't get enough support from the district attorneys. They didn't want to see that dramatic of an alteration in the system."

That pilot was expanded with 2015's House Bill 1094, allowing restorative justice diversion for lower-level offenses like petty and municipal charges.

Reports were released periodically on the program's success. The most recent, a 2016 evaluation performed by Denver-based OMNI Institute, a nonprofit social science agency, examined 474 youths who participated in the program from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2016. It found 433 youths successfully completed their contracts. Of those, nearly 60 percent completed pre- and post-surveys. The evaluation included surveys from 348 offenders, 140 victims and 835 community members. The report found participation in restorative justice was "positively associated with increases in youths' sense of accountability," and participants (not just the offenders) were overwhelmingly satisfied.

The report includes quotes from some of the kids, like, "I am very thankful that I was able to go through the restorative justice process because it made me a better person. I will never attempt to steal again."

But a section on recidivism proves most telling. The report examined whether offenders had any arrests or filings within one year of completing the program. At the time the data was collected, 283 of the youths in the survey had completed their program and 50 had been out of the program for one year. Of those 50, only 8 percent had recidivated. While the sample was small, the news was good. In comparison, a Colorado DYC report on recidivism found that of youths discharged from a traditional facility in fiscal year 2014-15, 30.9 percent (147 out of 476 youths) recidivated within a year.

"So, the pilot program was fabulously successful," says Lee, "and the idea there was to be able to hold that up to all the DAs and say, 'Look, there is a better, cheaper, more effective, more efficient way to deal with juveniles.'"

This year, Lee expanded restorative justice again. House Bill 1039 allows restorative justice as part of plea agreements, which resolve 95 percent of all criminal cases. The bill also requires probation officers to indicate in pre-sentence investigation reports whether the offender meets minimum eligibility requirements for restorative justice.

All that work, Lee says, has made Colorado a clear leader in restorative justice. Of course, a kid who graffitis his neighbor's garage is one thing. A kid — or an adult — who kills someone is quite another. Lynn Lee, who has mediated those most difficult conferences, says restorative justice can be transformative either way. But killers have to want to do it.

"We only see people who are really remorseful about what they've done," she says. "It's voluntary, so they don't have to do it. They're scared to death. They're scared to death. Before they meet the victims, they're totally traumatized by what they did and by what's coming. But I know what that's going to look like after they talk to each other for a little while."

click to enlarge Bob Gardner says protecting the public should be the No. 1 goal, but rehabilitation must also be a key part of the criminal justice system. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Bob Gardner says protecting the public should be the No. 1 goal, but rehabilitation must also be a key part of the criminal justice system.

When Sharletta Evans met with Raymond Johnson in 2012, she brought along Calvin Hurd, her eldest son, who was just 6 when his brother died in front of him. Later investigation revealed that Casson had been hit by a bullet in his head, shattering his brain stem.

Calvin, Sharletta said, wanted to make sure Raymond was authentic. He was also open to hearing what Raymond had to say — they both were, though Raymond came from a different spiritual place than Sharletta did: He had converted to Islam in prison.

It didn't take much time for Raymond to win Calvin and Sharletta over. She says Calvin, who is now 28, realized that he too could have ended up on Raymond's path. She saw that Raymond was a changed man, genuinely remorseful. Plus, Sharletta came to know Raymond as someone who desperately needed love when he was a boy. She recalls that when she told him that she had a feeling upon seeing him in the courtroom — a feeling that there was good in his heart — he was taken aback.

"When I told him that, he shed tears, and he said, 'Why didn't my mother know this?' He said, 'Why didn't my granny know this? If someone believed in me at that time, I would have never done what I done.'"

There are some patterns to Lee's criminal justice bills. Restorative justice is one. Reforming the punitive, sometimes violent practices of the Division of Youth Corrections — which one of his recent bills just rechristened the Division of Youth Services — is another (See "Just kids"). The rest are a grab bag: some fixing problems he sees, others a slice of big-picture idealism.

Lee's House Bill 1204 this past session simply allowed immediate expungement of certain juvenile records for low- and intermediate-level crimes. Shawna Kemppainen, executive director of Urban Peak Colorado Springs, says that can make a huge difference in kids' ability to later get jobs, school loans or a lease. In a press release ahead of Gov. John Hickenlooper's signing of the bill at Urban Peak on May 15, Kemppainen wrote, "About one-third of youth we see at Urban Peak have some past involvement with the criminal justice system. They want to move forward with their lives, and this change in law will make it more possible."

On the larger scale, Lee's 2017 House Bill 1326, or the Justice Reinvestment Crime Prevention Initiative — co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, and Sen. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village — reduces the time parolees may serve for a technical violation if they were serving for a low-level, nonviolent offense. "These aren't dangerous people," Lee says. "These are people that blew a drug test or missed a bunch of appointments or didn't call in."

Savings from that change will go into a grant program for southeast Colorado Springs and north Aurora, both high-crime areas. Community members can then apply for the grants to their local crime prevention planning teams, to fund anything from bettering schools to adding playground improvements, offering support to crime survivors, or granting small business loans. The idea is to let communities decide how best to better themselves and reduce crime. Lee expects up to $3 million in grants for each locale.

"What causes crime?" Lee asks. "Unemployment. Poverty. Lack of education. Lack of opportunities. So let's take that money and address those problems."

Christine Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, who helped Lee craft the bill, says the idea is to have a bigger impact on crime using the same dollars.

"The state spends over $1 billion just on corrections for adults and juveniles," she says. "And the communities aren't better for that. Neighborhoods most impacted by crime and criminal justice are not better, despite $1 billion a year. If public safety is our goal, we're not really doing a particularly good job."

Donner, who calls Lee "an incredible, thoughtful leader" and "one of the most decent human beings you'll meet," says she didn't simply hand the bill to him. "He works really, really hard," she says. "He's not a sponsor in name only. He's a real partner."

Likewise, Rebecca Wallace, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, who has worked closely with Lee on bills to reform juvenile corrections, says of Lee: "I don't think there's any bigger advocate of criminal justice reform."

Among those who testified at the Legislature in favor of HB 1326 was Sharletta Evans.

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Republican lawmakers and law enforcement officials share a reputation for being tough on crime, so it may be surprising to some that many have shown support for Lee's mission (see "The conservative case for change"). Despite political differences with Lee, Republicans often find common ground. Gardner has sponsored several criminal justice bills with Lee, including the Justice Reinvestment Crime Prevention Initiative. Gardner says he liked the bill because he thinks stronger communities and intact families will make people safer.

"I worried a bit when I signed onto the bill that people would think I put on rose-colored glasses and thought it would solve everything," Gardner says. But in the end, he adds, it made sense. It was rational.

Gardner's also, to an extent, a fan of restorative justice. "Where I was raised," he says, in a small town in south Texas, "we did a lot of restorative justice. If you vandalized when you were young — you vandalized your neighbor's fence or something — your parents took you down there and you probably ended up repairing and painting your neighbor's fence and doing a little more than that."

"The thing that I do find frustrating about it is we have bureaucratized things that used to be second nature," he says.

Gardner thinks it's important to craft thoughtful bills, that take into account that most prisoners are going to get out, so it's much better if they can take advantage of a second chance and become upstanding citizens.

From a law enforcement perspective, Lee's criminal justice reform mission can cut both ways. Fourth Judicial District Attorney Dan May, whose district covers El Paso County, says of Lee's bills, "There are some that I've liked and some that make my life more difficult."

Take, he says, Lee's bill on sexting (House Bill 1302, with four sponsors including Gardner) which passed this year. While May remained neutral on the bill, he says he had "real mixed feelings" on changing the law.

Lee's bill created lower penalties for underage people who send nude photos of themselves to others or who possess nude photos of another juvenile. Previously, that was only punishable with a charge of Class 3 felony child pornography, putting the child on the sex offender registry. The bill was spurred by a late 2015 case at Cañon City High School, where about 100 kids were trading hundreds of nude photos with each other. None of the kids were charged.

May agreed the existing penalty was far too steep, but he says most of the time kids were never charged in Colorado. Since the photos were illegal, he says his office often just seized and destroyed juvenile sexting images and put the kids in a diversion program. With lower-level offenses (misdemeanors, petty offenses and civil infractions) now available, he says, he expects hundreds of kids to face charges.

"To a certain extent," May says, "you're also creating a crime."

And while May says he's a fan of restorative justice, and thinks "Pete Lee's heart is in the right place there," he doesn't like that it displaces diversion programs, which he calls very effective. It's why, he says, he didn't choose to join Lee's pilot on juvenile restorative justice. "The bills [Lee] passes don't allow other ideas to be used," he says.

May also thinks a pilot program that one of Lee's recent bills mandated in the Division of Youth Services, trying to change the culture there, is happening too fast. And he doesn't like systems for parole reform that are rigid, saying it takes personal judgment out of a decision. What if, he says, a parole officer revokes parole because he reasonably believes that person is about to get violent? "Pete often has a view of there's one way to do it and that's it," May says.

Mark Waller also prefers allowing more wiggle room for judges, prosecutors, corrections officers and parole officers. But he says both parties have been guilty of taking away that discretion, often with good intentions. Republicans, he notes, often supported three-strikes-you're-out laws or the recent bipartisan felony DUI bill. The latter, he says, was a good idea overall, but as a prosecutor, he would have liked the discretion to differentiate between someone who racked up two or three DUIs in a year, and someone with a recent DUI and another 40 years earlier.

As a former prosecutor, he says, "I was frustrated every time I felt like the Legislature tied my hands and prevented me from coming to what I felt was a just resolution of a case."

That said, Waller acknowledges that different judicial districts can vary widely on punishments for the same offense.

"How do you resolve that?" he asks. "And is it something that you should resolve? Some people would say no."

But for all his head-butting with Lee, Waller says he sees a lot of good in his mission. "He truly believes the outcome is going to be increased public safety, and you can't fault him for that," Waller says. "Pete Lee wants the public to be just as safe as I do."

In many ways, you can't judge a bill that's just been passed. It takes years to see how a law works, what pitfalls and unintended consequences it might have.

Lee, approaching his final session in Denver, isn't sure what his final bills will be. He chairs an Interim Committee on Comprehensive Sentencing Reform that can introduce up to five bills next year. And he's serving on a Juvenile Justice Working Group for the National Conference of State Legislatures, developing guiding principles for state policy.

Lee will be 71 when he exits the House, and he doesn't know whether he'll pursue another public office. Whatever he does, he says he just hopes his work has created "a kinder, juster world: Isn't that what we're all trying to get to ultimately?"

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For Sharletta Evans, it worked.

After meeting with Raymond Johnson and Paul Littlejohn, both sentenced to life without parole, she became a champion of second chances. She started her own nonprofit, Victim Offender Mitigation Initiative, and frequently supports Lee's criminal justice reform bills. She's also advocated for reducing Johnson and Littlejohn's sentences (the third offender, Dameion Wells, the driver, was released some time ago).

In 2016, she backed Senate Bill 181 (which Lee co-sponsored), allowing judges to give Johnson, Littlejohn and 46 other Colorado juveniles sentenced to life without parole, a chance to leave prison one day. "I know these two young men have really reformed themselves, and they proved it to me, and they're yet proving it to me," she says.

Now 53, she talks to Raymond weekly, and she and Paul still write. She and Raymond, who shot her boy, have become particularly close. She calls him gifted and smart and "a solid young man." Evans seems to have expanded her motherly love in the wake of her grief. She now calls Raymond her son.

"I love on him until he knows that this love I have for him comes from God," she says.

All that came from restorative justice, she says. "Having a restorative justice dialogue, there is such a thing as closure, there is such a thing as getting over your pain and getting through it."

Part of that, she says, was "coming to the realization that these young men were kids when they committed this crime — that became a reality to me, more and more as the years went on. These were children. And for them to spend the rest of their lives in prison for something that they'd done as a kid, I felt like they needed a second chance to prove themselves."

Evans got her second chance too. After the first meeting with Raymond, something else miraculous happened. She could finally look at Casson's pictures and see something other than the awful replay of his death that had haunted her for two decades.

"This was the result of restorative justice: I'm able to think of Casson in his birth, in his life he lived," she says. "... It's no longer about that tragic night. Because that was locked in. That's all I could think about was that tragic night, that tragic night. Until after the dialogue. So, it gave me my life back. It gave me my memory back of who my son is."

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