Crime and punishment gets a new look in the R.F. Valley |

Crime and punishment gets a new look in the R.F. Valley

John Colson

A relatively new idea in the treatment of convicted criminals, known as “restorative justice,” has taken tentative root in the Roaring Fork Valley.

But although restorative justice has gained popularity in other areas, not all valley officials are sure exactly what it is or how it should be applied here.

An organization based in Basalt, called Rocky Mountain Restorative Justice-Midvalley Community Advisory Board, has handled a couple of cases already. And organizers are planning a series of training sessions and other events to entice more people to get involved.

It is based on a concept that started, at least as far as the United States is concerned, in Minnesota more than a decade ago and has since spread to other parts of the nation.

The concept, in various forms, is used in several cities around Colorado, including Denver, Grand Junction, Pueblo and Durango, as well as various Native American communities. It also is in use around the world, in such diverse locations as South Africa, Australia and certain parts of Europe, according to information contained on several Web sites.

Advocates say the use of restorative justice helps keep people from returning to the court system once they’ve served their sentences. They say restorative justice leads to a “recidivism rate” of only 3 percent, compared to more than 67 percent among former inmates of the Colorado Department of Corrections.

“I’m interested in the concept,” said Ninth Judicial District Attorney Mac Myers. But he feels it is most applicable to juvenile justice cases.

“I’d need to see some sort of track record in juvenile cases before I’d feel comfortable using it on adult offenders,” Myers said this week.

At its most simplistic level, restorative justice provides a chance for those who are victimized by crimes to confront the people who commit the crimes. They meet in a “mediation circle” that includes friends or relatives of the victims and the offenders as well as various community members.

In this way, according to its advocates, the victim feels “restored” to some semblance of normalcy, and the criminal gets a closeup picture of the effects of the crime, without resorting to what restorative justice advocates say is the more expensive and less effective method of prosecution and imprisonment.

In restorative justice, the members of the mediation circle determine the penalty for the crime, ranging from payment of restitution to doing community service for a year to performing chores or work for the victim. They key to the philosophy is that the criminal stays in the community rather than going to prison, and is confronted daily by the results of his or her crime.

If the penalty “contract” ordered by the circle is not fulfilled by the offender, the case is sent back into the regular criminal justice system for trial and possible punishment.

“The point of restorative justice is that the people where you live … were in your circle,” remarked local mediation consultant Barb Chambliss, who has been involved in different versions of the same basic idea for a decade or so.

She noted that the very first “restorative justice” effort in the Roaring Fork Valley happened in the early 1990s, when a group of valley school kids phoned in a bomb threat. A “mediation” was conducted, during which the kids were confronted by the man whose job it was to go around the school checking for bombs.

“You can’t believe how horrible it is to check in locker after locker, never knowing if at the next one you’re going to get your face blown off,” Chambliss said, recalling the incident.

A mediation approach also was used in the wake of a fire at Battlement Mesa several years ago, in which numerous homes were destroyed in a fire set by a teenager. Some of the homeowners who lost everything were included in a mediation with the teen. According to DA Myers, the result was beneficial to both the victims and the teen, who is still on probation following an arson conviction.

The latest push to establish restorative justice programs in the valley, which Chambliss characterized as in the “fledgling” stage, began soon after Aspen native Cody Wille was arrested and charged in connection with a 1999 crime spree in the Aspen area.

Wille’s mother, Kim Wille of El Jebel, learned about restorative justice while seeking some way to keep her son out of prison. She has continued to work on the idea even though her son is serving time in prison for his crimes.

Today, Wille knows that her efforts to introduce restorative justice to the valley will not help shorten her son’s prison term. He is now serving three years in the state’s “Youth Offender System” facility in Pueblo.

“His mom could make this thing fly 100 percent and it won’t help Cody,” said Chambliss, who has worked with Wille on starting the program.

“I made a commitment to the judge, the victims, the community, my son and myself to make sure that nothing like this happens again in this valley,” Wille said. “I will do whatever I can, for my part, to work in community relations, crime prevention and helping others in this valley from committing the same grievous errors I did. I want healing for the victims and the community and for all of us.”

Restorative Justice, as a concept, has already been in use in Glenwood Springs Municipal Court, and in the Garfield County juvenile justice system under the auspices of the agency known as the Youth Zone. The Youth Zone handles juvenile cases known as “diversions,” which don’t go through the traditional route of prosecution and punishment.

But Wille is hoping to broaden the application of Restorative Justice to cover more serious juvenile crimes and some adult cases.

She said the organization already has intervened in two cases, one of which involved a 16-year-old who was working at a midvalley business and was caught embezzling approximately $500.

The “sentence” imposed by the mediation circle, Wille said, has included a requirement that the boy do better in school, perform community service for the victim, his school and an area nonprofit group, and pay back the money he stole.

“We want them to feel successful, and that they have worked themselves back into the community,” she said of the offenders who go through the restorative justice process.

Police and other law enforcement agencies up and down the valley have been watching Wille’s work closely, and some have attended various training sessions to learn more about the process.

In Basalt, the town where Wille’s ideas seem to have taken hold most firmly, both the police department and the town trustees have endorsed restorative justice.

A police officer said that sometimes, when minor disputes bring the cops, the officers are able to use a restorative justice approach and keep the matter out of the courts by “bringing the two parties together and having them patch it up before it gets to the judicial level.”

Some form of restorative justice also has been used by Aspen authorities in the past, after a group of Aspen police officers attended a training in what was known at the time as “Real Justice.”

For now, other than the use of restorative justice principles in minor juvenile offenses, it appears that law enforcement officials are open to the idea, if somewhat cautious.

“I guess you’d say I’m taking a `wait and see’ attitude,” said DA Myers. “It’s still kind of an evolving thing.”

According to Wille, the Midvalley Community Advisory Board, which is a nonprofit corporation, already has gotten a number of grants from local nonprofit groups and governments, amounting to nearly $20,000 that either has been collected or will be by the end of the year.

Wille said the organization is planning a number of events and activities in the coming weeks, beginning with a training session for “facilitators” on March 9-11 at Windstar in Old Snowmass. Facilitators are the individuals who run the mediation circles.

There also will be a “Shamrockin’ For Justice” celebration on St. Patrick’s Day at the Two Rivers Cafe in Basalt, including live music and a “nontraditional” Irish dinner, which will raise money for the organization. Admission is $15, or $10 if you bring a recipe to be included in a planned “Community Heritage Cookbook” that also will be sold to raise funds.

Finally, Wille said, the group will conduct surveys up and down the valley in April. Area teenagers will go into neighborhoods to ask people their views on crime in this area and on restorative justice as an idea.

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