Englewood ‘Restorative justice’ program seeks to undo damage of crime

Process works to provide closure to victims, help perpetrators make amends

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Englewood is ramping up a program court officials hope will provide a more holistic and community-focused answer to criminal offenses.

Englewood’s Municipal Court is expanding its fledgling restorative justice program, joining numerous other Colorado cities in giving offenders, victims and the community the chance to work together to repair the harm done in a crime.

Kicked off this spring, Englewood will soon expand access to the program from juvenile offenders to adult offenders on Aug. 1.

The traditional criminal justice system doesn’t always fix the damage to victims’ lives or to the community, said Ames Stenson, who was hired this spring to head Englewood’s restorative justice (RJ) program.

“People who endure crimes want to know: Why were we targeted?” they said. “Did the person who did this think about what they were doing? We want to know people care, and we want a direct engagement to know what happened. That doesn’t always happen in the court system.”

In an RJ process, Stenson explained at an information session on July 15, the offender and victim — referred to as the responsible and harmed parties — sit down for a conference, joined by community volunteers and trained facilitators. In a structured conversation, the responsible party listens to the harmed party describe how the offense affected them, and may respond to questions or share their perspective.

Community members may also share their perspective on how the offense harmed the larger community.

At the end, the responsible party agrees to a contract with stipulations spelling out how they can repair the harm their offense caused. Common contract elements can include letters of apology, monetary restitution, community service or participation in educational or treatment programs.

If the responsible party completes the contract items within a specified timeline, the offense is sealed in their criminal record. If they fail to complete the contract, the case is then referred to the traditional court process.

Restorative justice principles have their origins among Indigenous people, Stenson said.

“I don’t mean to generalize, because different people had their own traditions, but indigenous communities have used these concepts for hundreds of years,” Stenson said. “When harm occurs, we can’t just throw people away. We’re all interrelated, whether we like it or not - how do we right these relationships?”

Entering Englewood’s RJ program requires the agreement of numerous parties: Cases will generally be referred by police officers, who are given the discretion to make referrals on a case-by-case basis. Englewood city prosecutors must then review the referral, and if they agree, a judge must sign off.

Then, both the responsible and harmed parties must agree to the process, and only if the responsible party agrees to take responsibility. Harmed parties are not required to participate in person, and may submit written letters or send surrogates if they do not feel comfortable directly engaging with the responsible party.

The goal, Stenson said, is to obtain accountability for wrongdoing and fix the damage done, with the hopes of improving life for everyone involved.

“When you build people up and have authentic conversations, that’s where we can repair harm,” they said. “Challenges still exist, but we want people to know they’re an important part of the community. We’re working to build resilience not just of the harmed and responsible parties, but of the whole community.”

Because Englewood’s court only handles municipal cases, only low-level offenses — no felonies or those involving serious bodily harm — will be referred to Englewood’s RJ program. Neither will cases involving domestic violence, traffic offenses, or cases in which the perpetrator has active warrants.

Studies show the RJ process has high levels of satisfaction and contract completion, Stenson said, and can reduce recidivism.

Englewood’s RJ program is one of dozens operating in public and private settings statewide, Stenson said. The City of Longmont has operated an RJ program since the 1990s, and Englewood Public Schools also uses an RJ approach to student conflicts.

RJ programs in Colorado are facilitated by the Colorado Restorative Justice Coordinating Council, created by the state legislature in 2007. The council provides development, training and education for RJ programs.

Englewood’s program had its origins in 2019, but officially opened to juvenile cases in June. The program will expand to adult offenses on Aug. 1.

So far Englewood’s RJ program has two juvenile cases in progress with four other pending referrals, said Englewood Municipal Judge Joe Jefferson, who said he’s hopeful for the program’s future.

“It fits well into our court’s mission of dignity for all,” Jefferson said. “It provides deeper healing for all parties involved, and a quicker resolution. The healing isn’t just for the victim, although we think of them first and foremost. It’s also so the defendant can sleep better at night, because they’ve righted a wrong. They don’t have to feel like they have to walk in the shadows.”

Jefferson said the RJ process is by no means a get-out-of-jail-free card.

“If the offender isn’t taking responsibility, if they’re not completing their contract, if we’re not getting a win-win-win scenario for the victim, offender and community, it goes to the traditional court process,” he said. “Nobody’s wiggling out of this.”

The program is seeking volunteers ages 15 and up to become trained community members to sit in on conferences, Stenson said. Trainings will be held in coming months. More information is available by searching for the phrase “restorative justice” at EnglewoodCO.gov.

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