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Restoring hope


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State Rep. Pete Lee receives a standing ovation Tuesday afternoon when he's introduced by Gov. John Hickenlooper. The old courthouse in the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum is filled with Lee's supporters and criminal-justice activists to see his restorative justice bill signed into law.

"We should hope to get to the point where we spend more on classrooms than cages," says the first-year lawmaker. "More on textbooks than prison blocks."

This bill, Lee says, can help lead to such a future, "if you, the people, insist that we use restorative justice in the courts and schools."

Restorative justice can be broadly defined as a system "that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behaviour," as the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation puts it. With this bill, says state Department of Human Services spokeswoman Liz McDonough, the Division of Youth Corrections can build upon some of the projects it's already started.

"It allows us to do more, based on funding becoming available," she says. "But the division is committed to the principle of restorative justice.

"If offenders have a better understanding of the harm that they have done to the community, they will have a better foundation to build in themselves better behavior. They understand that their actions have consequences. The idea is that then it makes it harder for the individual to do harm to the community after they are released."

She points to graffiti projects that DYC is undertaking with youths, doing cleanup and painting murals, "and the community is able to explain to them the harm that graffiti does to the community."

Dan May, 4th Judicial District Attorney, says the bill passed (on the very last day of the legislative session) because it doesn't force DAs to use restorative justice. Rather, May says, it mandates that judges inform victims and defendants of the option: "Now the judge can enter the order. It used to be that we could go into court and say that we think that this is a good case for restorative justice, and there was nothing on the books authorizing a judge to order it."

Jeannette Holtham, president and founder of Youth Transformation Center, works with DYC at the Spring Creek Youth Services Center near the county jail. Her Boomerang program uses restorative justice techniques to reach at-risk youth who have committed a crime or violated school policy.

She says she's been invited to work area schools in Academy District 20, and at District 11's North Middle School next year, she'll help incorporate restorative justice practices. She hopes to expand her program within the DYC, using tools such as "introspection exercises."

"We try to get these kids to see the skills that they were born with," she adds. "That self-discovery process that makes them realize that they can do something with their lives, that they don't have to throw their lives away."

Ann Freeman, director of DYC's Southern Region, says restorative justice is one of the DYC's five tenets of treatment.

"We have all kinds of restorative justice programs," says Freeman, "and we will continue to expand with this bill." It represents a paradigm shift, she says: "It is saying that we don't want to punish these kids; we seriously want them to change the way they are thinking."


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