Columns » Small Talk

Bill Groom

Restorative justice advocate



Consider the number of criminals clogging up the nation's prisons, and the concept of restorative justice may not seem so far out. Bottom line, it's about taking responsibility for your crime, apologizing to your victim and to the community you've harmed, and meaning it. Historically, when people commit crimes and get caught, they face retribution from the state, get sent to jail, get hardened, get no rehabilitation and are released back into the population. Then, 60 percent get caught committing another crime and are sent back to jail. Fueled by politicians who cry for longer, tougher sentences, our system is designed to keep prisoners locked up so the community is safe. Colorado Springs activist and non-practicing lawyer Bill Groom, 68, has spent time in federal prison and believes there's another way.

What's the concept? Restorative justice asks what harm was done and how can it be made right. It requires that the offender admit his or her responsibility. Usually you will have to agree to sit down and meet with the victim, or with a victim's surrogate, and sometimes members of their family, and admit your mistake and your responsibility cleanly and clearly and explore ways to make up for the harm to the fullest extent possible.

Why do it if you have to go to jail anyway? You could get a lighter sentence. There could still be jail or even prison time but it's amazing how many offenders are willing to admit their responsibility and want to apologize to their victim. There's no opportunity to do that in our present judicial system.

Is this a new concept? The Mennonites have been practicing restorative justice since the early part of the 20th century. The Maoris used this system, then it spread through the rest of New Zealand and then Australia and Canada and England. In Vermont, the Department of Corrections actually started the program. It's been very slow going in Colorado Springs; this is an arch-conservative, very punitive county, where we're very much into a 'lock 'em up for a long time' mentality.

Did you go through this process of restorative justice? No, but I went through worse -- three years of prison. (Almost four decades ago, as a young lawyer, Groom was indicted along with a client for securities violations and fraud.)

I spent a lot of time in prison talking to other convicts in the mess hall and dorms and cell blocks asking them their stories, and it was fascinating. I must have talked to at least 500 and I never found a single convict that was responsible for being there. A lot admitted to the crime, but there was always some justification for what they'd done.

So did you reach a point where you took responsibility for what you'd done? Because of what happened I was disbarred in 1965 or 1966 and was reinstated 10 years later. I went to work for a bank and started giving seminars to bank customers and business organizations on taking responsibility for your actions. Then I gave a seminar to a group of convicts. A convict audience is a tough, tough audience, and so I told them I did three years, to build some credibility with them. They asked me my story and about halfway through I saw that these guys were just not going to buy my bottom line -- that, in my case, the jury just didn't understand. Suddenly it just snapped, like a jolt, that my story was just like the other cons.

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