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FORT LUPTON — In the Bill of Rights, the Sixth Amendment guarantees every American the right to a speedy and public trial.
But the term “speedy” can be relative, and for juveniles entering the legal system for the first time, a swift trial is sometimes not fast enough to correct the path of recidivism.
Fort Lupton Police Chief Kenneth Poncelow has seen this pattern play out repeatedly for juvenile offenders: a youth is picked up for spray painting graffiti, and before they see a judge in traditional municipal court, the behavior has escalated to fights or drug use.
So Poncelow has helped bring an alternative path for justice to the Fort Lupton community to give young offenders and their victims a way to find restorative justice that doesn’t lead to more crime.
“From the initial point of contact with law enforcement, either a summons or an arrest, it can take 60 to 120 days to go to municipal court,” Poncelow said. “From there, it can be another 30 to 180 days for completion of court orders.”
During this time, Poncelow said that many juvenile offenders double down on risky or illegal behavior because only forms of punishment frequently loom ahead for them in the traditional legal system.
But in a restorative justice court, the juvenile can admit meet with the victim and a circle of community members, and together the group can come up with ways that the offender can rectify the damage of the crime through community service.
“When victims, offenders and community members meet to decide how to do that, the results can be transformational,” Poncelow said. “If officers pick up a kid who has committed some sort of criminal act, in the traditional legal system, the punishment isn’t immediate. And the other problem is we have kids coming into municipal court with two or three charges because they commit more crimes while they’re waiting for court.”
The restorative justice court is way to expedite the legal process, but it’s an opt-in program, meaning that the juvenile has to admit to committing the crime. The offender and the parents must also agree to participating and cooperating with the recommendations of the court and meet all appointments and deadlines.
“If they don’t follow that process, then it’s back to the traditional court system,” Poncelow said. “This doesn’t replace the legal system, but it gives juveniles and their parents more options.”
And while the process is designed to be speedier than the traditional legal system – a juvenile can progress from the point of arrest to successfully completing the restorative justice program in as few as 41 days – Poncelow emphasizes that the implementation of the restorative justice was well researched and never rushed.
He worked with researchers at CSU to conduct a survey last year of the Fort Lupton Community to see if the public supported such an alternative.
While only 23 percent of respondents had heard of the concept of restorative justice, 89 percent of respondents supported the idea to “bring the victim, offender and community volunteers together to collectively decide what the offender will do to repair the harm caused by their actions” if the offender had stolen $50 and had no prior offenses.
Surprisingly, this support climbed to 89 percent if the offender already had two misdemeanors on the record.
For other offenses, such as smashing car windows, Fort Lupton respondents supported restorative justice by 86 percent.
But Poncelow wants to remind Fort Lupton that the key to success for a restorative justice program is community volunteers.
“The Community Restorative Justice processes are unusual, because they are led by trained volunteer facilitators and include representation by trained volunteer community members,” Poncelow said. ‘The community members represent the local Fort Lupton community voice and are responsible for identifying harms done by the offenders as well as suggesting potential contract items that can be carried out by the offender to repair these harms.”
The Restorative Justice Court is fully funded through grants, Poncelow said, and the Fort Lupton court would be part of a larger network throughout the county.
“That way, if a kid is picked up in Aristocrat Acres, which is outside Fort Lupton city limits, they don’t have to go to court in Greeley, where the county seat is located,” Poncelow said. “The juvenile can participate in the Fort Lupton restorative justice program.”
Community Service Officer Mary Albee is leading volunteer orientation and community member training.
Albee has served in the Fort Lupton Municipal Court for more than a decade, and in this time she’s seen how a juvenile can stumble into an initial offense, but once the offense is on their record, many juveniles lose sight of any incentive to cooperate with the legal system.
“If the community can get together to offer some positive reinforcement when a young person straightens out their behavior, that can make all the difference when it comes to recidivism,” Albee said.
For questions, contact Officer Albee at 303-857-4011, ext. 143.
Contact Ben Wiebesiek at 303-659-2522, ext. 205, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.