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AHS students try out a new kind of criminal justice

John Colson

Students at Aspen High School got a shot at being criminals yesterday, as well as being the parents of kids who have strayed from the straight and narrow.

And Brad Onsgard, an officer for the Aspen Police Department, thought the students in his “Street Law” class did pretty well in their roles.

The class, sponsored by the police department and the local Restorative Justice group, allowed the teens to ad lib and expand the roles they had been given for the role-playing exercise.

One young man got so wrapped up in the exercise that he became a little belligerent, telling his “victim” to “shut up” when he began to berate him for a make-believe act of vicious vandalism.

The victim, of course, also was a student in the class, and it all was part of Onsgard’s plan to introduce his students to the concept of Restorative Justice, a relatively new way of dealing with certain kinds of criminal behavior.

Onsgard, the APD’s juvenile investigator who teaches the class every week, had invited local Restorative Justice advocate Kim Wille to give a presentation. The presentation included a videotape about Restorative Justice and a mock “mediation circle” in which the students played various roles.

Some of the students, who were mostly Aspen High School seniors, grew restive and started giggling during certain portions of the videotape. But all gave their full attention to the role-playing.

The national story

The video outlined the Restorative Justice program, which began in New Zealand and Australia and has been in use in Minnesota for a decade and other parts of the United States for a few years.

In a nutshell, Restorative Justice involves the use of “mediation circles” to bring crime victims in personal contact with the offenders, or “persons of concern,” as Wille called them. The idea is to, whenever possible, keep petty offenses and minor crimes out of the traditional criminal justice system. Sentences are devised that teach offenders the error of their ways and give victims a chance to “heal” and be “restored” in the process.

The circles, according to Wille, can be confrontational and tempestuous. But in other parts of Colorado and the U.S. they reportedly have proved effective in reducing “recidivism,” the rate at which convicts return to jail time after time. The circles have also helped victims achieve a sense of peace relative to the crimes they have endured.

And, according to the video, Restorative Justice-style techniques are working to reduce violence and behavior problems in school settings.

Wille, in a short talk before the video, said that Colorado spends $5,000 per year, per student, on public education, but that it can cost as much as $17,000 to incarcerate and hold a juvenile offender just until the case goes to trial.

“That’s not counting what happens afterward,” she said, referring to the tens of thousands of dollars built into the costs of prosecuting the case and incarcerating a convicted teenager.

Compare that, she said, to the cost of monitoring a juvenile who has been through a Restorative Justice process and been sentenced to community service, repayment to the victims and whatever else the circle comes up with. She said it typically costs only a couple of thousand dollars for such monitoring.

What it might mean

In Onsgard’s class, the “persons of concern” in the mock circle were four boys who, according to the scenario, had painted graffiti and gang symbols on a newly erected fence around the yard of an elderly couple.

After the role-playing was over, the students talked about Restorative Justice and how it might apply to Aspen.

“Would this have been an option with the robberies?” asked one girl, referring to a series of armed robberies and other crimes committed in late 1999 by a group of Aspen teenagers. One of the criminals was Cody Wille, Kim’s son.

“In other parts of the state, such as Durango, where they use it for everything, yes, it would have,” Wille replied. She and Onsgard said they had heard of Restorative Justice methods being used for very serious crimes, even murder.

Another girl said she was “surprised” to hear that the program had been used to mediate sexual assaults, noting, “I don’t see it being OK for the victims.”

Wille and Onsgard agreed, saying it would only be used in such cases if the victim and the victim’s parents went along with the idea.

When asked if Restorative Justice could be useful at the high school, the students almost all said it wouldn’t because “we don’t have much of that kind of stuff here,” meaning fights, bullying or other disputes between students.

Onsgard, however, disputed that claim after the class had broken up, explaining, “I know they have that kind of thing here, because I deal with it.”

A couple of the students in the class said they might be interested in taking part in a mediation circle outside school,

“I would sit in on one,” said a girl. “I think it’d be cool.”

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Posted: Friday, March 2, 2001


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