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Restorative Justice Program in Longmont Sees Success, Spotlights Community

December 23, 2018
Officer Toby Plucinski receives a commendation from LCJP restorative justice program executive director Kathleen McGoey, right, and program manager Abby Whipple during the police daily briefing Dec. 18.

Longmont police have found they can impact offenders without charging and arresting them for their crimes. The city’s restorative justice program, run by the Longmont Community Justice Partnership, has become known nationally for its unique model and close ties to the city’s law enforcement.

The restorative justice program is “another tool” that officers can use for people who take responsibility for their actions and want to make amends with their victim or victims, said Longmont police Sgt. James Brown, who is a liaison with the nonprofit.

“A lot of times we’ll encounter somebody where they’re good people, but they just made a mistake,” Brown said. With this program, the officer can refer them to restorative justice instead of arresting them or ticketing them, if the victim also agrees.

Second chances

In the restorative justice model, the offender and victim in a case come together in a conference to discuss what happened, and the offender has the opportunity to apologize. Volunteers take part in the conference to assist the victim, represent the community and facilitate the discussion. Either the officer on the case or a police liaison also attend the conference to represent law enforcement’s point of view.

If an offender fails to complete his or her contract and make amends, he or she will be charged or ticketed for the crime. Certain crimes aren’t eligible for the program, including domestic violence and sexual assault crimes.

While this is generally how restorative justice programs work, there are a few key elements that make Longmont’s version unique, and explain why its leaders are asked to speak at national conferences and receive calls from other programs from as far away as Hawaii.

The most obvious difference is who the program serves, said Kathleen McGoey, executive director of Longmont Community Justice Partnership. The program has helped offenders ranging in age from 10 to 70, but most restorative justice programs focus only on youth. Many start in schools and are used as alternatives to expulsion and suspension.

Adult diversion is a “growing trend,” McGoey said, but it’s always been a part of the Longmont program, which also helps those who already have a criminal record.

“Our police are willing to recognize that even if someone made the wrong choice before . . . it doesn’t mean they’re someone that should be given up on,” she said.

Everyone gets a voice

In other places, adult programs mostly exist in local district attorney’s offices and court systems. But in Longmont, and a couple other departments in Colorado, police can make direct referrals that bypass the court system, but retain the ability to charge someone if they fall back on their promise to make right by the victim.

This can have a positive psychological effect for both the offender and the victim, McGoey said. By skipping arrest and court, offenders feel that they are seen as “more than just the mistake they made,” she said. “The fact that that message comes from police, as you can imagine, is something most people are not expecting.”

McGoey said the program is successful, based on data collected in 2007 to 2009. The National Research Center found that the recidivism rate — or rate at which people were re-arrested — after one year was 10 percent for those who completed the program. About 90 percent of offenders complete their contracts to repair harms. In 2008, more than 32 percent of offenders in Colorado returned to prison after one year, according to a Department of Corrections report .

The University of Colorado is working on an updated study, McGoey said.

For victims, who often don’t get to speak in court, they can express their feelings and have a voice in the restorative justice conferences.

McGoey said the program has 100 percent victim satisfaction, and that victims feel the offenders were held accountable for their crimes.

Police officers’ involvement in the program also plays an important and unique role in Longmont. They take part in the conference, where they get to “level the playing field,” McGoey said, and become just another community member with a voice. Officers are humanized in the process of sharing their personal experiences, and become more than just people who “chase ‘bad guys.’”

In June, Denver will host the annual conference for the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice, which is the largest restorative justice conference in North America. McGoey is slated to give a presentation on Longmont’s program and has already started receiving calls from other program leaders.

To meet the demand for information on Longmont’s unique practices, McGoey said they plan to offer a two-day training in Longmont following the conference. “The field is blowing up right now,” she said.

Part of the culture

Brown, the sergeant with the department, said he has had a very positive experience with the program. When he sees people around town who have gone through the program, they’ll often come thank him for give them the chance to participate in it, he said.

Brown calls restorative justice the “perfect bridge in between” arresting someone and doing nothing, as it allows closure while also giving the offender a second chance.

But not all police departments are as open as Longmont to the idea of restorative just. At the 2018 International Institute for Restorative Practices in Detroit, McGoey gave a presentation to restorative justice program leaders from across the country, some from Canada, about Longmont’s program. Most leaders didn’t have partnerships with their local police, and wanted to know how Longmont got its department to “buy in” to the idea.

McGoey said that restorative justice can be a “challenging concept” for law enforcement to adapt to.

“There was a misconception in the past that restorative justice is ‘soft’ on crime,” she said. “But when you require an offender to speak, it’s actually harder than going to court and not saying much and being passive.”

Now, McGoey said she sees police departments searching for more tools to use against crime. The culture is starting to shift from “black and white” — arrest or let go — to a wider idea of what the criminal justice system can entail, she said.

At Longmont, all new officers go through an orientation with Longmont Community Justice Partnership so they know they’re expected to refer people to the restorative justice program. The partnership also holds a restorative justice conference for field training and train officers on how to participate in the program. McGoey said they also attend daily department briefings.

“It’s part of our culture here,” Brown said. He speculated that any change might be hard for a department to take in. When he was first hired, Brown said he didn’t know about the partnership or the program, and was apprehensive the first time he went to a conference.

“Once I saw the value of it and experienced it firsthand, I believed in it,” he said.

Madeline St. Amour: 303-684-5212, mstamour@prairiemountainmedia.com

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