Offenders in the judicial system don’t always have the chance to repair the harm they’ve done and victims don’t always get a sense of closure.
Restorative Justice, a program relatively new to Buena Vista, is based on restorative approaches to crime and focus on victim satisfaction and offender accountability.
This is the story of how the program transformed the lives of a Buena Vista mother and her son and why they want to share what they’ve learned with the community.
Toni and Chris
When the relationship between Toni Gerdes and her son, Chris, started becoming more volatile, she worried their increasingly frequent arguments could turn violent.
The arguments, which Chris said was “putting it nicely,” eventually did, leading to an incident where Toni had Chris arrested for assault. The charge landed Chris in front of an 11th Judicial District probation officer, who recommended a program known as Full Circle Restorative Justice.
“I didn’t have any idea what it was,” Chris said. “Even the probation officer didn’t know all the details.”
The program, which was coupled with a nonviolent communication class, brought Toni and Chris together with restorative justice educators and community members to talk about the incident and the pair’s communication problems.
The two each met with program facilitators in a preconference where they were able to tell their side of the story about what happened during the assault.
After a restorative circle was scheduled for the two to meet face-to-face and discuss the issues related to the incident.
“It was tense going in, but it all poured out,” Toni said. “By the end, I felt tremendous relief. The circles allow you to talk as equals in a compassionate way and they make sure everyone is actually listening to each other.”
Chris agreed that the restorative circle was beneficial.
“I just wanted to be treated as an equal. It was the first time I think we felt like we could really be heard,” he said.
As part of the program, Chris agreed to terms discussed in the circle, including three therapy sessions and writing a letter of apology. He said he was on-board will the recommendations because he had a hand in making them, instead of being told by a judge.
“Kids my age don’t like to be told what to do,” Chris said. “But if we’re presented with an option, I think we’ll usually use our best judgment.”
Toni said the restorative circle and the nonviolent communication education made a significant impact in the communication between them, and ultimately their relationship as a whole.
“We started on that journey and it’s been really helpful,” Toni said. “The program was truly amazing and changed the way we communicate.”
The program had such an impact on the two that they both joined Full Circle Restorative Justice’s board of directors to help spread the word about how the program can help others in similar situations. “We were so impressed with it we want to help it grow in the community, especially here in Buena Vista,” Toni said.
Chris is also bringing the program to his school, Chaffee County High School, as part of his service learning project, a graduation project each senior spearheads to make an impact in their community.
Executive director for the program Patty LaTaille said Toni and Chris’ story is evidence of the program’s success.
“It totally transformed his life,” LaTaille said. “His mom got her son back.”
What it is
According to LaTaille, the program involves “a fostering of dialogue between the victim and offender,” which she says leads to higher rates of victim satisfaction, offender accountability, and a reduction of recidivism—or the tendency to offend again.
The recidivism rate for traditional justice systems is about 80 percent, while restorative justice programs boast a lower rate of 30 to 40 percent, according to LaTaille.
The program distinguishes itself from traditional programs within the justice system because it gives victims a voice in the process, which helps empower victims and support the offender’s accountability, according to LaTaille.
Chaffee County Sheriff Pete Palmer said while the program can be beneficial for some, others may respond better to more traditional punishments.
“Some people can be turned around through harsh punishment and the prison system, but for a lot of people [restorative justice] can be a good process,” Palmer said.
The program is offered mostly to youth ages 10-20 for charges like minor in possession, vandalism, trespassing, theft and assault.
The program also saves taxpayer money, according to LaTaille. The cost of incarcerating a youth in prison or a detention center for one year costs $32,000 to $60,000 or more, she said. The cost of deferring a youth to restorative justice is $125.
Referrals to the program come from district attorneys, victim’s advocates and diversion and probation officers in the 11th Judicial District.
“I think it’s successful in some cases,” 11th Judicial District Attorney Molly Chilson said. “I think it can be appropriate for property crimes, assaults, but a lot of it depends on the victim…I don’t see it as being separate [from the traditional justice system]. I see it as another option.”
Victims who feel a face-to-face session with the person who wronged them would be beneficial are also able to request the program be part of an offender’s probation or diversion requirements.
“If they meet face-to-face, they realize it is a neighbor who wronged them, or someone out in the community,” LaTaille said.
The program is funded mainly from the $125 case fees offenders pay when they are entered in the program. The 11th Judicial District does not provide any funding to the program, according to LaTaille.
Thus far, Full Circle Restorative Justice has only had 31 cases, but LaTaille said she hopes to increase the number.
“I do think we’re underutilized,” LaTaille said.
How it works
The program is victim initiated—meaning it is only recommended when the victim desires the restorative process. It strives to create a balanced and respectful forum to discuss the particular incident.
“I can tell you from experience we have a very high rate—95 percent and up—of victim satisfaction with the circles,” LaTaille said.
Though the idea of meeting with the person that wronged them may be intimidating to victims, LaTaille said it gives them the unique opportunity to move past their fears and get questions answered, hopefully leading towards greater acceptance and healing.
The meeting allows for the two parties to share how the situation has impacted them and expects the offenders to take steps to correct the harm they have caused.
LaTaille said the program can be successful in offender restitution because the offender must take initiative with the victim in deciding how they will repair the situation, instead of being handed a sentence from a judge.
Community members, not necessarily related to the specific incident but with a stake in a particular crime, are also included in the dialogue between the victim and offender as a form of community support.
Where it’s been, where it’s going
Dianne Walker started Full Circle Restorative Justice in 2006 as a peaceful, face-to-face solution for problem solving situations. The organization was granted its 501(c)3 nonprofit status in 2009 and since has been serving the Salida, Buena Vista and Cañon City communities.
LaTaille took over the program as executive director in 2010.
In 2011, the Colorado House of Representatives passed HB 11-1032, requiring victims to be informed of their right to use restorative processes and allows the restorative justice program to be implemented when the victim requests it.
The Town of Buena Vista Board of Trustees plans to grant Full Circle Restorative Justice $1,000 in community funding to help the program expand into the north end of the county, after Gerdes asked the trustees for funding during their meeting Oct. 23.
The money will help pay for transportation and education costs associated with the program.
Buena Vista Police Department Chief Jimmy Tidwell said restorative justice is a positive program, and that he prefers to be proactive, rather than reactive.
“A lot of the stuff we’re doing is part of their program,” Tidwell said. “I’m all for it.”
To donate to Full Circle Restorative Justice, go to http://www.fullcirclerj.net/index.html and click the “Donate” button in the bottom-right corner.