The 17th Judicial District, which includes Broomfield and Adams counties, holds 50 restorative justice circles per year with victims.

A recent report that details the skyrocketing societal and financial costs of rising crime rates in Colorado, coupled with a 50% recidivism rate — one of the worst in the country — have prompted a warning from leading prosecutors: Well-intended policies that coddle criminals have made life in the state more dangerous.

But one philosophy that allows victims and offenders to look each other in the eye and talk things out is gaining steam among the state’s district attorneys, whether they favor a tough-on-crime approach or tend to lean toward reforming the justice system.

That model, called restorative justice, is being used in all but five states across the nation.

“Restorative justice has emerged as a new legal norm, but it’s not meant to be a panacea," said Thalia González, one of the country’s leading supporters of the restorative justice model. 

Restorative justice is modeled after a method that was used among North America’s Indigenous people, specifically the Navajo, and is designed to promote healing and understanding. It usually involves a mediated, face to face encounter between the victim of a crime and the offender. The victim explains the harm that was done, the perpetrator discusses what led to the decision to commit the crime and they attempt to come to terms.

“Recidivism is one thing, but what we really ultimately want is thriving, productive adults in our community. Doing this in earlier stages in a care-based society is how we work for that to occur,” said González, a professor at Occidental College in California. “People just want to be understood.”

In most jurisdictions that have adopted the model, a judge will wipe the perpetrator’s record clean if they stay out of trouble.

“It can be very healing in a way that the defendant getting a conviction is not very healing. The victim can say to an offender, ‘This is how you impacted my life.’ And that can be very powerful,” said Brian Mason, district attorney for the 17th Judicial District, which includes Broomfield and Adams counties.

Mason's restorative justice program does not accept criminals with level 1 or 2 felonies and won’t take anyone who refuses to admit to what they did. Officials said 85% of offenders who go through the program stay clean for three years.

“People who say restorative justice is weak on crime don’t understand it,” said Levon Hupfer, director of Mason’s diversion program.

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann said she was skeptical of the restorative justice model until she saw it for herself.

“I thought, ‘This sounds like kumbaya movement.’ I’ve seen so much criminal behavior, it didn’t seem serious and then I observed one and I was amazed at the impact that it had.”

McCann said Denver’s restorative justice program has a 1% recidivism rate. Only one person of the 107 people who completed the program in Denver over the past two years committed another crime.

The person who reoffended was involved in stealing a vehicle and got a DUI at the same time. She will now go through the traditional court system, said Chris Brown-Haugen, deputy district attorney and director of Restorative Denver.  

“This is their exit from the system. They’re not going to be coming back,” said Brown-Haugen, who added that two offenders have been terminated from Restorative Denver and eight withdrew from the program. There are 32 people enrolled in the initiative.

Restore Denver has expanded to include felony cases. One of those cases involved a young Denver mother named Genesis, who coughed on a McDonald’s worker and told her she was infected with the virus during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The food took a long time. It was cold and not what I wanted,” said Genesis, who agreed to talk to The Denver Gazette on the condition that the newspaper not publish her last name.

When the police came, Genesis was arrested, charged with felony menacing and forced to give up her son to social services. After a year of doing community service and journaling, Genesis is on track to get her son back.

“It was a second chance at life. I could have been sitting with a felony. I did wrong. I know I did wrong. I know I would never do that again,” Genesis said.

She shared her story during an online fundraiser for Restorative Denver during Colorado Gives Day, which raised more than $5,000 for the program.

Restorative justice is not a magical answer to reducing crime, said Mitch Morrissey, who had a similar program to McCann’s when he was Denver's district attorney.

He said some restorative justice models are backward, paying more attention to the offenders’ needs than to the person they harmed.

“To get victims restitution, you must get them to buy into the deal. Sometimes victims are so angry they don’t want anything to do with it,” said Morrissey, who co-authored the aforementioned Colorado crime analysis with The Common Sense Institute and former 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler.

Their research found that violent crime in Colorado has risen 10% per year since 2011. Of those arrested in Denver in 2021, 65% had at least one previous arrest since 2018.

“The problem with this whole thing is that there are repeat offenders and habitual criminals, things like organized shoplifting rings, criminal enterprises, people who come in after doing the same crime five times,” said Morrissey. “Restorative justice won’t work for them.”

Michael Allen, district attorney for the 4th Judicial District, which includes El Paso and Teller counties, said restorative justice is a trendy name for mediation, which has been around “as long as people have been on Earth.”

The 4th Judicial District has its own version of atonement for low-level offenses, called Neighborhood Justice, during which people gather in a room to resolve disputes over things like property lines and barking dogs. Allen says he supports the restorative justice model but stresses that it should never be used for serious crimes.

“You’re revictimizing the victim by making that person sit across from the offender and now the offender has some sort of control over the outcome and the participation of the victim,” he said. “That to me is something that is a huge criticism and something I would never support.”

Weld County takes 100 restorative justice cases per year in tandem with its juvenile diversion program. Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke said he only allows first-time offenders with low-level misdemeanors to participate in the program, and there is one group he will not tolerate in his model: Gang members.

“Kids who are in gangs have already demonstrated criminogenic thinking,” he said.

Since 2005 when Weld County first started restorative justice, 97% of offenders successfully completed diversion and about the same percentage did not commit another crime.

“Those going through the court system are the ones who truly need to. And those who we can divert, and we never see again,” said Rourke. “We’re looking for kids who just messed up.”

Two kids who messed up in Adams County provide an example of how being held accountable can be a deterrent for the young and impressionable. Hupfer recalls the case of 10- and 12-year-old boys who threw rocks at a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train and caused $10,000 in damages, money the kids’ families didn’t have.

“It would have changed their entire family life. The Burlington Northern manager agreed to waive all charges if they agreed to talk about train safety,” said Hupfer.

The kids visited schools and explained what they did as part of their restitution plan. And there’s the case of the 16-year-olds who turned off the subdivision circuit panels to about 100 homes in Strasburg, an unincorporated town straddling the Adams/Arapahoe county line.

“The (homeowners association) wanted to participate. The police officer also got involved. These kids didn’t get off easy,” said Hupfer. “These guys saved their money and bought groceries for neighbors whose food had spoiled when the power went out. They could be a chief of police or a teacher someday.”

It’s been four years and neither teen has gotten in trouble again.

“I think diversion is more important today than ever before, in a world now where the criminal justice system is under scrutiny as never before,” said Mason, who has been district attorney since January and ran on a promise to expand diversion programs. “When I can keep someone out of the system who doesn’t need to be in it, that makes the system better and our community safer.”