Signaling his support for the restorative justice approach to juvenile crime, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter signed House Bill 08-1117 into law yesterday. The innovative measure, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both the State House (63-1) and Senate (33-0), is designed to create an alternative to incarceration that is neither punitive nor lenient. Instead of heading off in cuffs, certain categories of juvenile offenders (skewing toward status, or low-level, delinquents, I assume) will now be allowed to enter a program that includes face time with their victims and court officials, who will work out a service regimen to “pay” for the damage they have done.
“By making juvenile offenders take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, we can teach them that the decisions they make, both good and bad, will affect the course of their life,” Governor Ritter said in a press release. “Repairing the harm that someone has caused can be the thing that matters most in the criminal-justice system. As a former prosecutor, I’ve seen too many people start out committing minor crimes as juveniles and escalate to committing serious crimes as adults. We must do everything we can to intervene early and break this cycle.”
Ritter has already demonstrated his support for common-sense juvenile justice reform. His predecessor, Bill Owens, signed a law abolishing life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders in 2006; last September Ritter strengthened that law by signing an executive order creating a clemency board to grant relief to the forty-five juveniles currently serving LWOP sentences in the state. “I don’t know of any state that has retooled its clemency process for juveniles to recognize their rehabilitative potential,” Alison Parker, senior researcher on juvenile issues at Human Rights Watch, told the Denver Post at the time. “This is an excellent way to approach the issue.”
And Colorado has already demonstrated its support for restorative justice. Last November the Denver public school system proposed a $2 million districtwide restorative justice program that would put a staff restorative justice coordinator in every school and provide teachers and administrators training for the approach. The program, which is being phased in incrementally, offers an alternative to suspensions and police involvement by focusing on face-to-face interaction–between, say, two boys who get into a fight on school grounds–and a conflict resolution developed by the parties involved.
For those who are interested, there’s a whole library of research and resources on restorative justice that’s easily accessible online. Some of the most successful pilot programs have been launched abroad–Britain, New Zealand, Jamaica, among other countries. Colorado, it increasingly seems, is the place to turn for domestic leadership on this promising approach.