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Colorado Lawmakers Consider Restorative Justice

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DENVER (AP) – Sharletta Evans says meeting her son’s killers would help her heal. A bill Colorado lawmakers are debating aims to help facilitate that, but it’s facing a tough test from the first legislators to decide whether it fails or moves on.

The bill Evans is supporting creates a process for victims to face their offenders and emphasizes an option known as “restorative justice,” which favors restitution instead of imprisonment.

The bill was heard by the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday. But lawmakers delayed the vote until Thursday after three hours of testimony from more than a dozen parties, including groups who oppose the measure because they say it doesn’t focus enough on what victims want.

Colorado law already allows restorative justice for juveniles during advisement, plea entry, sentencing and probation. House Bill 1032 would make some of those provisions mandatory, and make the option available to adults.

Evans said the bill would provide funding to facilitate a meeting with the men who killed her 3-year-old son in a drive-by shooting in Denver 15 years ago. Her son, Casson Xavier Evans, known as “Biscuit,” was sleeping in his mother’s car when the shooting happened. The shooters, who were 14 and 15 at the time, were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“Basically what I would receive from them would be closure, so I could tell them what they’ve taken from me as a mother,” she said.

Evans said the men have agreed to meet with her. Although she could set up the meeting on her own, she and victim advocates say it needs to happen in a controlled environment to prevent any chance of “re-victimization.” Colorado Department of Corrections officials say a lack of funding has prevented them from implementing a victim-offender dialogue program that would help Evans meet her son’s killers.

Restorative justice programs already exist throughout Colorado, but the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Pete Lee of El Paso County, said putting the Legislature’s stamp of approval on the practice would make it more common.

Lee said incarceration doesn’t always prevent people from reoffending.

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

He said restorative justice also encourages offenders to accept responsibility for their actions.

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.

The bill would also expand restorative justice options for schools.

Doug Wilson, the head of the Colorado Public Defender’s Office, told The Associated Press 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.

The Colorado Attorney General’s Office and the Colorado District Attorney’s Council spoke against the bill, saying the legislation should be dictated by victims so that they are not put in the uncomfortable position of engaging their offenders if they don’t want.

Tom Raynes, the executive director of the District Attorney’s Council, said he knows of at least 15 judicial districts in the state that incorporate some form restorative justice and that he worries that the bill would “supersede” their options in cases where they don’t think restorative justice is appropriate.

Lee said other states, including California and Minnesota and Maryland, have enacted legislation similar to what he’s proposing.

- By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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