Restorative Justice Program Launches in Denver

‘Restorative Denver’ aims to keep more misdemeanors out of court and promote healing in communities

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Victims of misdemeanors in Denver will have another way to seek justice without seeing the offender go to jail.

On Thursday, the Denver District Attorney’s Office announced the launch of a new restorative justice program that will focus on crimes committed by adults. The Restorative Denver program aims to save on costs, reduce recidivism and provide victims an alternative means of seeking retribution for a crime. The District Attorney’s Office will initially use the program for misdemeanors except for cases of domestic violence or sexual assault. 

Colorado is a leader among states in restorative justice practices with many jurisdictions instituting their own programs, and more than 35 Colorado statutes that promote restorative practices. Denver has had a program for juveniles, but this is the first program in which the District Attorney’s Office will begin referring criminal cases involving adults to this out-of-court process.

Colorado statute defines restorative justice as practices that “emphasize repairing the harm to the victim and the community caused by criminal acts.” Restorative practices, which are voluntary for both the victim and the defendant, often seek rehabilitation for the defendant rather than incarceration. Restorative practices typically see wider use in juvenile cases than in cases involving adult offenders.

“It’s a process to allow more healing,” McCann said during a press conference Thursday. “And it’s kind of a different way to look at criminal justice, and what’s an appropriate resolution, in some cases.” McCann’s office expanded a restorative justice program for juveniles in Denver in August 2017, “and the results have actually been quite positive,” she said.

In July 2018, the Denver District Attorney’s Office and the Office of the Colorado Public Defender agreed to collaborate on a pilot project for expanding the use of restorative justice throughout the state. The goal was to help standardize restorative practices in Colorado and create a “roadmap” that various jurisdictions could use to implement their own programs. McCann said Restorative Denver is “an outgrowth” of that ongoing collaboration.

Other jurisdictions in Colorado with robust restorative programs include Longmont which served as a model for Denver’s [program].

Under Restorative Denver, the District Attorney’s Office is partnering with The Conflict Center, a Denver-based nonprofit that provides conflict resolution services and training. The office will refer eligible cases to The Conflict Center, where neutral facilitators will conduct a confidential “community group conference” between the victim and the defendant, and seek a resolution. Volunteer community members affected by the crime may also participate in these meetings and give their input on how the defendant should repair the harm.

The parties draw up a written agreement detailing what the defendant will do to repair the harm, and The Conflict Center will monitor the defendant’s compliance with the agreement. Once The Conflict Center confirms the defendant completed the agreement, it will notify the District Attorney’s Office, which will then dismiss the case.

The District Attorney’s Office said the goal is for each case to get resolved, including the time it takes for the defendant to satisfy their agreement, within 3-6 months of being referred to the Conflict Center.

“Ultimately, restorative justice focuses not on punishment, but on making things right,” said Beth Yohe, executive director of The Conflict Center. “And on reintegrating the person who caused harm back into the community with the skills and the awareness to make better decisions in the future, and to create for everyone a safe and thriving community.”

Deputy District Attorney Christina Brown-Haugen, who was previously a Colorado public defender, is spearheading Restorative Denver within McCann’s office and will help funnel eligible cases over to The Conflict Center. McCann expects prosecutors will primarily be the ones recommending their cases for Restorative Denver, although public defenders may also approach her office to suggest it on clients’ behalf. 

McCann admitted being previously “skeptical” about whether restorative justice was an effective diversion method, and that some members of her office are as well. The office’s staff, victim advocates and attorneys have all been trained on restorative justice procedures, she said.

“We hope that by starting with misdemeanor cases, we will build a record of success, and we will be able to show people that in our office, that this is a good way for cases to be resolved.”

In order to enter a restorative justice process, the accused must admit guilt. That aspect has given some criminal defense attorneys reservations about allowing their clients to enter similar programs. Restorative Denver’s face-to-face meetings will be covered by confidentiality agreements, however, that render any admissions of guilt inadmissible in court later on.

The District Attorney’s Office may evaluate down the road whether it should expand the program beyond misdemeanors, McCann said. Her office will also assess the recidivism rates of program participants and how many complete their agreements, following up with defendants six months to a year after their participation in the program.

The Colorado Restorative Justice council has given the program a $20,000 grant to launch, “but that’s a limited amount of money,” McCann said. If the program proves successful and merits scaling up, it will require additional funding sources, she added. “I think we will be talking to folks in the philanthropy community about whether or not we can build this program with some outside funding.”

At the press conference, Jason McBride described his experience in the restorative justice process as a victim in a vehicular assault incident. McBride’s was among the test cases the Denver District Attorney’s Office handled leading up to the launch, and is a rarity in that it concerned a felony. During the process, McBride met with the defendant face-to-face, and he said it was valuable to understand the defendant’s side of the story and have community members involved in the resolution.

“It was really great experience. It’s something that’s definitely needed in this community,” McBride said. “It’s just that we have too many people going to jail, and we can’t support that.”

— Doug Chartier

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