Feb 8, 2011 3:55 PM by Bea Karnes

Colorado lawmakers consider restorative justice

DENVER (AP)-Colorado lawmakers will consider whether people accused of crimes should be given a chance to make amends instead of being sent to prison.

A bill up for review in the House Judiciary Committee would emphasize the option known as "restorative justice," which favors restitution and encourages a dialogue with victims instead of imprisonment. Colorado law already allows the restorative justice options for juveniles during advisement, plea entry, sentencing or probation but House Bill 1032 would make some of those provisions mandatory and it would make the option available to adults.

Rep. Pete Lee, a Democrat from El Paso County, said incarceration doesn't always prevent people from reoffending and it doesn't encourage criminals to take responsibility.

"We have a criminal justice system that has incarcerated far too many people and has shown an intolerably high recidivism rate," he said.

The bill was scheduled to be heard Tuesday afternoon. It will require that juveniles, adults and victims be advised in court and in school districts about the restorative justice option. The bill would also direct the state Department of Corrections to implement a policy to establish victim-offender dialogues.

One example that Lee has cited for restorative justice is that of a 9th grade student who was caught with a pellet gun at school. The offense would have led to his expulsion, but Lee said the school decided instead to allow the student to take responsibility for what he did and make up for it by talking to middle-school students about bullying and violence in schools.

"Our criminal justice system encourages people to deny responsibility, deny accountability," Lee said. "They plead not guilty up until they make a plea bargain and then they plead guilty and often times to a lesser offense."

Doug Wilson, the head of the Colorado Public Defender's Office, said he likes the intention of the bill and thinks it would be beneficial to have offenders engage in a dialogue with victims so that each could see the other's perspective. However, Wilson said he is concerned that defendants could be admitting guilt before they're convicted of a crime.

Wilson said that people who choose the restorative justice option should be protected so that any information they discuss about their case will not be used against them later. As an example, Wilson said that information shared during plea deal negotiations can't be used against a defendant. He said he hopes such a provision will exist in Lee's bill.



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