Restorative Justice Repairing Harms, Reducing Incarceration in Colorado

Local restorative justice activists and policymakers work to reduce recidivism rates and repair harms to the community. Restorative justice is finding community solutions to criminal acts by bringing the offenders, victims, and community into a discussion of retribution and rehabilitation instead of punishment. The Pikes Peak Restorative Justice Council has been at the forefront of policy and mentality change in Colorado Springs. Board member Lynn Lee started working with restorative justice initiatives in 2001 and has helped transform the practice of restorative justice in Colorado Springs in the 17 years since.

Photo by Anna Grigsby

“Restoring relationships and repairing harms are the key words used in restorative justice,” said Lee. This definition refers to the relationships between offenders and victims, offenders and the community, and offenders and their families. Retribution and solution—rather than punishment—facilitates relationship repair, which decreases recidivism rates and makes communities safer. Rebuilding relationships and taking responsibility are major tenets of restorative justice.

While legislators and activists explain restorative justice as a tool for incarceration rather than a replacement, Emma Kerr ’19, a leader of the Colorado College Prison Project, sees the potential for abolition. “Restorative justice provides the methodology for abolition as a direct alternative to incarceration,” Kerr said. What restorative justice distinctly lacks is a punitive nature. Kerr says that punishment has no functional role in criminal justice, as the high recidivism rates from incarceration decrease the safety of the community and offer limited opportunities for reintegration of former inmates hoping to find housing, employment, or education.

Restorative justice has received political and social support throughout Colorado, despite the politicized nature of incarceration. In Colorado, restorative justice bills have passed with bipartisan support. Lee attributes this to the centering of the process around the victim, the high success rates, and the framing of restorative justice as a tool for judges, victims, prosecutors, and the community, rather than as a complete replacement for incarceration. The legislation for restorative justice gained support starting in 2011 because of Pete Lee’s efforts. 

Pete Lee, the House District 18 Democratic State Representative and husband of Lynn Lee, has sponsored bills and resolutions passed unanimously by the Colorado Congress to institute restorative justice programs in the state. Rep. Lee worked as a criminal defense lawyer where he saw first-hand how incarceration failed to alter offenders’ behavior. Since his election to the Colorado House of Representatives, he has sought to pass legislation to reform the criminal justice system.

These include HB11-1032, an “omnibus large-scale restorative justice bill” that “expands the Victim Rights Act and gives those impacted by crime new options by defining restorative justice, describing its processes in state law, and permitting it to be used in different types of criminal cases as well as in disciplinary cases in schools,” wrote Rep. Lee. “Some victims could get the option to meet face-to-face with an offender to speak their minds and demand straight answers, which has been shown to have a life-changing positive effect on all involved when it’s done in the way the bill describes.”

Before the bill was passed in 2011, Representative Lee had to define restorative justice for his colleagues. Through working with Republican Representative Mark Barker, Rep. Lee succeeded in convincing fiscal conservatives, moral conservatives, and liberals of the merits of restorative justice. He pitched the bill based on his audience, using the cost-saving statistics, the focus on accepting responsibility, and the desire to reduce incarceration numbers. In 2013, HB13-1254 created restorative justice pilot programs for juvenile offenders and added a $10 surcharge to every criminal case in Colorado in order to fund programs. The Denver-based OMNI Institute reviewed the pilot programs created by HB13-1254. According to their report, 97.4 percent of participating juveniles repaired the harm within their community. The recidivism rate for 135 juveniles six months later was 8 percent, which is lower than the 22 percent recidivism rate for juveniles across Colorado, as provided by the Department of Corrections.

Pete Lee plans to run for the Colorado Senate District 11, which includes Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs. Lee will run for the seat Democrat Merrifield will vacate in 2018.

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