Restore, don’t repeat
When Kim Wille’s son was convicted of robbery for his role in Aspen’s crime spree of 1999, it opened her eyes to the failures of the criminal justice system.
Instead of turning her into a cynic who lobbed criticism from the outside, it spurred her to try to improve the system from the inside.
Wille created Rocky Mountain Restorative Justice Inc., known as Restore, the same year that her son, Cody, was sentenced to prison for robbing Clark’s Market in Aspen. Even though Cody is out on probation now and doing well, Wille has stuck with Restore, proving her interest wasn’t just a reaction to crisis.
Restore, she said, is a “peaceful and positive solution to repair crime.” It takes a substantially different approach than the traditional system of prisons and probation.
Restore makes the person responsible for a crime appear before a peace circle, officially called a community group conference, comprised of eight to 12 people. The circle includes the victim of a crime and that person’s support group, the offender and that person’s support group, various officials from law enforcement and the community at large, along with a trained facilitator from Restore.
The members of the circle explain how the crime affected them and the community, often in highly emotional terms that serve as a real eye-opener to offenders. “There isn’t one conference where we don’t go through a Kleenex box,” Wille said.
Then the group works on a contract that essentially forces the offender to right the wrong. It can include restitution, community service and other conditions.
The offender must check in weekly with a Restore official to make sure the contract is being honored. Monitoring can last up to a year after the contract conditions are met.
Wille said the idea of the program is to make offenders realize the full impact of their crimes in a way that makes it less likely they will commit another crime. She said the results speak for themselves.
In Colorado, only between 3 and 7 percent of offenders who go through a restorative justice program commit another crime; up to 67 percent of offenders commit another crime after going through traditional justice models.
Financial implications of using the alternative justice program are also huge. Wille, who now serves as executive director of the Restore program for Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties, cited state statistics that show the average cost of running a person through restorative justice is $2,100. It costs an average of $17,000 to incarcerate an offender in jail until trial, then between $32,000 and $54,000 annually if the person is sent to prison.
The state’s financial condition would appear to dictate that the state’s courts will lean on restorative justice more heavily in the future. Budgets for court clerks and for district attorneys continue to be slashed, even while legislators continue to “get tough on crime” with stricter sentencing requirements.
But restorative justice’s appeal goes beyond dollars and cents. “It’s the humanness of it,” said Wille.
She started looking into restorative justice right before her son was sentenced to prison for robbing Clark’s Market. Her son’s attorney told her about the approach so she went online and studied information on the Internet.
“By the time I stopped that night, it was 4 in the morning,” she said. “I loved it. It clicked, right off the bat.”
Despite her pitch for that type of program, a judge sentenced Cody to six years in prison. The term was reduced to three years after his successful completion of a youth offenders’ program. Ultimately, Cody was released from prison and placed on five years of probation.
But once Wille looked into the program, she was hooked. She decided to found a restorative justice program in the Roaring Fork Valley and acquired 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit organization. Wille said she placed public-service announcements in the newspapers about the program and received overwhelming support and interest right away. The program was officially founded in the valley in December 1999.
Now there are more than 70 people who assist the program in one way or another. Wille has recruited some community members to sit in on the peace circles.
Tyler Whitmire, who graduated last week from Basalt High School, was invited by Wille to sit in on the circle as a community representative for a juvenile case. Whitmire will attend Mesa State College for studies in criminal justice next school year, and he eventually wants to serve as a district attorney and U.S. Supreme Court judge.
He said he instantly saw the value of restorative justice. He sat in on a case that involved five juveniles from the midvalley who stole a checkbook from a person and wrote checks for items purchased on eBay.
“You sit there and tear them down forever,” Whitmire said. “Then you build them back up.”
The members of the circle dig into the offenders’ lives and find out what skills they possess and what ambitions they have for life. They point out all the ways that person could put those skills to good causes, then encourage them to do it.
Whitmire believes the program is worthwhile because the offender is confronted with the consequences of the crime. The victim is usually in the circle, often crying and describing how his or her life was affected.
He would like to see the program expanded into Roaring Fork Valley schools. “When you’re a student and you do something bad, you get suspended – a vacation, in my eye,” Whitmire said. The student never faces the consequences of an infraction.
In the criminal justice system, Whitmire believes the program could be more widely used. There are some cases, like homicides, where it isn’t applicable, but for the most part he thinks it could help prevent people from committing other crimes.
Restorative justice is directed primarily at youthful offenders – juveniles or young adults. The emphasis is to work with them the first time so they don’t end up back before a judge, Wille said.
The program is widely used across the state. Its proponents like to refer to it as another arrow in the judicial quiver.
So far, the local program has heard about 20 cases, according to Wille. Cases can be referred by victims, law enforcement officials, district attorneys and judges.
“We’ve got judges saying `Let’s try this,’ ” said Wille. She tactfully answered a question about how the program is viewed by district attorney’s offices for the 9th Judicial District, which includes Pitkin and Garfield counties. She said she is hoping to coax District Attorney Mac Myers to refer more cases.
“Why not try us and let us help you?’ ” she asked.
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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