Taking some of the drama out of the courtroom

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City officials look into using Department of Justice grant to offer new approach in handling low-level crimes, youth offenders

By Gene Sears

Community policing is a term often bandied about by politicians, usually lacking in substance.
    Not so in Fort Lupton, where city officials are weighing a $42,000 Colorado Department of Justice grant targeting alternative methods to reform youthful offenders.

    Restorative Justice, currently under consideration by the police department and the city council, is an alternative court process for low-level crimes such as shoplifting, disorderly conduct or fist fights between juvenile offenders.
    “Very low-level crimes,” Police Chief Ken Poncelow said. “What we are looking at now is for juveniles, but at some point we may look at adult offenses.”
    The reasons behind focusing on minor crimes as well as minor miscreants are simple: Both are best dealt with speedily and with a dose of wisdom.
    “There are two problems you run into with juveniles,” Poncelow explained. “One is that, by the time you have a juvenile commit a crime and we go through the process of issuing the summons, it may be 90 to 120 days before they end up in court. Juveniles don’t remember what happened yesterday, let alone 90 days from now. It moves them a long way from committing the crime.”
    Another issue is the possibility for a troubled youth to re-offend before reaching court on the first offense, compounding their errors. The restorative justice process moves things along much faster.
    Following the issuance of a summons, the juvenile and their parents have the option to agree to the restorative justice court. Sitting in with a facilitator and co-facilitator, the charging officer, the victim and the family, the court would hammer out an appropriate sentence, in real time while the incident is still fresh in everyone’s mind.
    “It would have the juvenile and the parents, it would have whoever was affected,” Poncelow said. “So if two kids got into a fight, and the both agreed, then it would bring in the two kids, their parents and whoever was affected, say, a school official. Then everyone can talk about what that crime did to them. So the kids now see that it is not just that child against the system, it’s that you actually did harm to somebody.
    Victims would be able to tell the offender exactly how the crime affected them, and parents would have an opportunity to talk about how it feels to have the police come to the house. Not just a roundtable discussion, strict rules apply to move the process; limiting speaking to turns, facilitating healthy discussions and moderation by the facilitators.
    “It opens that conversation, people can actually see the harm they are actually doing, it’s not a nameless, “I did something against the state of Colorado. It’s now personalized, putting a face with that crime.”
    The group assesses penalties, so the offender can then be reintegrated into the community. The emphasis is on positive actions replacing the negative behavior, with solutions presented on a case-by-case basis.
    “What do they need to do?” Poncelow said. “They need to go to drug and alcohol counseling, they need to go to anger management classes…If it was a graffiti case, they might need to go over and paint the garage that they put the graffiti on. They need to repair the harm that they did, and if they do that, then it is all done.”
    Far from a cushy attempt at justice, the program offers some real-world penalties and solutions that make more sense than a fine or probation period, both relatively easy to dismiss by the offender.
    “It’s not soft on crime at all. In fact, the penalties are usually harder,” Poncelow said. “It’s more stringent, with more stringent sanctions, and the kids follow through.”
    Perhaps best of all for youthful offenders, record of the offense is only held at the local level to prevent reoccurrence. No criminal record is filed, unless the juvenile fails to comply with the terms of the restorative justice panel.
    “It’s a one-time thing, and if they go through it, and if they clean up their act and are on their way, fine. If not, they have to go through the regular court system.”
    Cautiously optimistic about the program is Fort Lupton City Councilwoman Shannon Rhoda, historically conservative in her approach to budgetary items.
    “No. 1, the attorney hasn’t looked it over yet,” Rhoda said. “No. 2, I like the concept of juveniles not going through our court system, having something set up for them so that you can work with the parents. I’m totally for that. My concern is that the grant money we received is just to study it and set it up. Now if this program were to flourish and it was great for the city, where would we get the money in future years to support it?”
    Acknowledging that the city could reapply for grants in subsequent years, Rhoda said that money is not a foregone conclusion, and wants more information. Some of that could come in the form of analyzing current court expenditures and comparing them to restorative justice costs. Balanced out, the expenses could match current totals, or potentially save money.
    “It could and it should,’ Rhoda said. “In principal I agree, but we need to have all our ducks in a row before we do it.”

Contact Staff Writer Gene Sears at gsears@metrowestnewspapers.com.