How Victim Rights Shaped Spending, Laws and the Future of Punishment in Colorado
A concept borrowed from Native American traditions and other cultures, restorative justice offers an alternative to the conventional crime-and-punishment approach of the legal system. The emphasis is on “restoring” and healing a community damaged by crime – by, for example, letting victims have more say in the justice process and requiring transgressors to admit their guilt and agree to reparations, such as fixing up vandalized property, instead of simply spending time behind bars.
A Colorado Springs Democrat and criminal defense attorney, Lee had worked with juveniles in a restorative justice program in El Paso County and had been impressed with the results. “We had very low recidivism rates, and the kids accepted responsibility for what they did,” he says. “So I became a zealot.”
Many prosecutors are skeptical of the touchy-feely aspects of restorative justice programs; they regard the approach as far more effective in dealing with juvenile delinquency and property crimes than violent offenses. But Lee, whose wife works as a restorative justice facilitator, believes that a focus on healing can be useful in a wide range of criminal cases, to victims and offenders alike.
“In 25 years of practice in the criminal courts, I can count on one hand the number of times I saw an offender shake hands with a victim and offer a sincere apology,” he says. “There’s that expression in snowboarding, ‘Go big or go home.’ I wanted to introduce restorative justice to the adult criminal code and put it into the schools and the Department of Corrections.”
Lee wasn’t proposing a change in sentencing laws or a costly new treatment regimen, just an advisement to victims and offenders that restorative justice might be an option – along with a pilot program in prisons for “victim-offender conferences” when appropriate. He expected his bill to have strong support from victim advocacy groups. But when House Bill 1032 came up for public comment, two of the most powerful voices in Colorado criminal justice circles were raised to oppose it.
“Nancy Lewis came up to the hearing table with Tom Raynes,” Lee recalls. “I was very surprised that they were linked arm in arm.”
Raynes is the director of the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, a group that provides services and lobbying for prosecutors across the state. Lewis is the executive director of the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance, a nonprofit that works closely with district attorneys and various state agencies. COVA is relatively small in numbers – its official membership is less than a thousand people – but with an annual budget of more than $800,000, a yearly conference that draws greater attendance than two national victim-advocacy gatherings and strong ties to the law enforcement community, it’s by far the most influential victim-rights group in Colorado.
While supportive of restorative justice in theory, Raynes and Lewis had several practical concerns about Lee’s bill. They wondered what standards would be required for the professional facilitators who were supposed to determine if a particular offender and victim could meet face-to-face without further trauma to the victim. Most of all, they wanted clear language that victims were in charge of any restorative justice effort and could decline to participate at any point.
“You can’t say to a victim, ‘You have to talk to your offender,’” Lewis said. “That’s just ludicrous.”
Lee was stunned. It had always been his intent that the program would be voluntary and initiated by victims, he says; the idea of dragging people into a healing process against their will made no sense at all. But he hadn’t made that point clear to the organized victim lobby, a force he’d failed to consult before drafting his bill.
“I didn’t think COVA would oppose my bill,” he says now. “I thought they would embrace it. So I buttonholed them after the hearing and said, ‘Okay, let’s see what we can do to address your concerns.’”
Lee had learned a lesson that every freshman lawmaker learns sooner or later: If the victim lobby has problems with your bill, you’ve got problems. What began as a modest rights campaign decades ago on behalf of survivors of domestic violence, centered on the notion that victims of crime deserve to be heard, has grown into a formidable national movement shaping legislation, sentencing policy and public debate on crime and punishment. The movement is particularly strong in Colorado, which has some of the most far-reaching victim-rights legislation in the country – and an ample bureaucracy to administer it.
In 2011, more than $30 million in public monies was spent in Colorado in the name of victim assistance and advocacy. Some of it comes from court surcharges imposed in criminal cases and is paid directly to crime victims and family members to cover everything from medical costs to burial fees. Some of it pays the salaries of full-time victim advocates in police departments and prosecutors’ offices. A surprising amount, around a fifth of the total, consists of state and federal grants doled out to law enforcement agencies, nonprofits like COVA and other entities for conferences, training, salaries and research that may have no direct impact on victims at all.
The convoluted chain of financial relationships and shared agendas hasn’t gone unnoticed among other criminal justice interest groups. Critics charge that the victim-rights movement has become too closely allied with government to serve its diverse constituency. “COVA has always been very clear that their mission is retribution and punishment,” says Maureen Cain, policy coordinator for the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. “But victims come in all perspectives. A lot of times they want to prosecute to the full extent of the law, but sometimes they’re counseled into that position.
“COVA’s position has always been driven by the district attorneys,” Cain continues. “Their board members are overwhelmingly district attorneys and law enforcement. You almost don’t have to talk to COVA [about legislation], because they’re just going to do what the DAs tell them to do.”
Lewis says her group and prosecutors argue frequently about policy and legislation – but not in public. “Our philosophy is, in legislation and funding and programs, to try to have consensus with folks,” she explains. “If we have a disagreement, we have it behind closed doors. It isn’t like the press would ever know about it.”
It’s not exactly shocking that COVA would clash with the defense bar – or other “offender advocates,” as those pushing sentencing reform are labeled by the victim-rights movement. But there have also been memorable disputes between COVA and other victim groups, over issues ranging from the death penalty to restorative justice.
“COVA is very good at giving victim assistance to victims,” says Howard Morton, executive director of Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, which began as a gathering of eleven grieving family members in 2001; in October 2011 it marked its tenth anniversary, with a membership now at 1,100. “But when COVA gets into the political arena, then we sometimes find ourselves on opposite sides of the fence.”
Who speaks for crime victims in Colorado? The answer is complicated, as Representative Lee discovered when he went about clarifying HB 1032 to satisfy COVA and the district attorneys. (Passed in the spring of 2010, the revised bill leaves no doubt as to who’s in charge of the restorative justice process: The phrases “victim-initiated,” “requested by the victim” and “victim-centered” appear a total of thirteen times in the final version).
“I think COVA represents some victims,” Lee says carefully. “I don’t think it represents all victims.”
Then he quickly adds, “Don’t get me in trouble with COVA. I want to work with them.”
• • •
It’s customary for lawyers and judges to pay lip service to the rights of victims in criminal cases. But only in the last three decades have victims achieved substantive rights and influence in the way crimes are prosecuted. Before that, being a crime victim was mainly about feeling powerless – losing your property, your peace of mind, your health, even a beloved child or parent or sibling or lover, without warning or any say in the matter at all.
And that feeling of powerlessness often continued throughout the court process.
Joe Cannata remembers that feeling well. In 1987, his youngest daughter, Lynn, was stabbed to death in front of her two-year-old son. She was twenty and pregnant. The police suspected her boyfriend, but it was a couple of weeks before they could make the arrest.
“They had victim advocates in the DA’s office, but their role wasn’t well defined,” Cannata recalls. “They were just starting to give out victim compensation. They gave the man who killed her $500 toward the burial, and he spent it on himself. After the trial, the judge actually apologized for having to give him such a harsh sentence. He didn’t allow us to speak at all.”
Lynn’s boyfriend was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 24 years in prison. But that was hardly the end of it. The Colorado Court of Appeals tossed the sentence on technical grounds; the Colorado Supreme Court reinstated it. Under the sentencing scheme at the time, the man was eligible for parole after serving only a third of his time. Cannata learned how to negotiate the maze of parole hearings – even though his daughter’s killer would often waive his hearing at the last minute, after Joe and his wife, Kaye, had driven hours to be there.
“The offender actually had control of the victim’s life,” Cannata says. “I didn’t think he should have even been eligible for parole after only eight years.”
The situation gradually began to change, starting with tough new laws dealing with domestic violence. Thanks largely to pressure from grassroots activists outraged by violence against women, Colorado became a pioneer in requiring arrest and treatment programs for batterers. Groups focusing on other crimes – Mothers Against Drunk Driving, campaigns targeting sexual assault and child abuse – also began to make their presence felt. COVA was incorporated as a board-run entity in 1982; Lewis became its first executive director in 1994.
In 1992, Colorado voters amended the state constitution to formally acknowledge that victims and surviving family members “have the right to be heard when relevant, informed and present at all critical stages of the criminal justice process.” The Victim Rights Act, which has been amended five times since its creation, requires law enforcement agencies to keep victims apprised at every step of an offender’s journey through the system, from arrest and preliminary hearings to parole matters or an upcoming release from prison or jail. The system has a review board for victims who have a com-plaint about their treatment and even a legal clinic, started by COVA, that can intervene in a criminal case on a victim’s behalf.
Cannata now runs a nonprofit called Voices for Victims that provides transportation to parole hearings and other post-conviction services for crime victims. Over the years, he and other victim-rights crusaders have pushed for additional legislation to address sentencing inadequacies and related issues. Cannata is particularly proud of “Lynn’s Law,” passed in 2004, which requires violent felons in Colorado to serve at least 75 percent of their sentence before parole eligibility. Other changes to the parole process have eliminated offenders’ ability to waive a hearing without advance notice or to apply for halfway-house placement right after being denied parole.
The new legislation has created special revenue streams designed to benefit victims – and, in some cases, to make offenders pay in new ways for their crimes. Colorado has had a victim-compensation program in place since 1981, which provides up to $20,000 to a crime victim for out-of-pocket medical expenses, property damage, burial costs or other losses not covered by insurance. The program is funded by surcharges imposed in court cases, ranging from $33 for a misdemeanor traffic offense to $163 for a felony, that are independent of any additional restitution the court might order. The program also receives millions in federal funds (including nearly $900,000 buried in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). In all, federal and state victim-compensation funds awarded $14.25 million to 7,758 Colorado crime victims in fiscal year 2010, an average of less than $2,000 per claim.
Other federal funds flow into the state through Victims of Crime Act grant awards ($6.65 million in 2011, for services ranging from bilingual counseling of victims in Eagle County to hiring prosecutors who specialize in domestic violence cases in La Junta) and Violence Against Women Act awards ($1.9 million in 2011). Another pot of state money comes from a second surcharge on criminal defendants, which funds Victim Assistance and Law Enforcement (VALE) programs operated by public agencies and private groups. In 2011 the Colorado Department of Public Safety doled out $1.2 million in VALE grants directly to various agencies; another $13 million in VALE funds were dispensed by local boards in the state’s 22 judicial districts, appointed by the chief judge in each district.
The VALE money is the lifeblood of many victim groups, which compete for funding awarded by the local boards. Some of the awards go directly to victim services, such as a rape crisis hotline or a safehouse for battered women. But there are plenty of other uses for the cash, too. By statute, district attorneys, who are barred from the local VALE boards but are expected to administer the awards, can charge up to 10 percent in administrative costs. Add to that the awards made directly to their offices, to police departments and related entities, and fully one-third of the $13 million goes to government employees rather than victims.
VALE funds pay the salaries of many victim advocates in district attorneys’ offices and police departments. They pay for digital cameras purchased by the Otero County Sheriff’s Office and anatomically correct dolls used by the Firestone Police Department in investigating allegations of child sexual assault. And they pay for cops and prosecutors across the state to attend training and conferences sponsored by COVA and other groups, on topics such as “Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault,” “Supporting Victims of Identity Theft” and “Officer Involved Shootings and PTSD.” In 2010, VALE funds paid out $289,186 for various organizations just to attend COVA conferences; the salaries of the nonprofit’s top employees (including Lewis), as well as an intern program operated by COVA that trains students to work with victim advocates in public agencies, are also supported by VALE grants.
Although COVA does have an emergency fund to assist victims directly when other sources have been exhausted, most of its energy is devoted to training and conferences; those activities provide its main source of revenue, apart from government grants. “That’s a very big part of the mission, to see that the person dealing with a crime victim has good training,” Lewis explains. “In other states, agencies that provide that training on a statewide level are housed in the governor’s office. Being a nonprofit, we don’t have to switch things around every time the governor switches.”
Privately, grassroots groups have suggested that some of the state money expended on law enforcement training could be better spent on more immediate victim needs. But Cannata, whose fledgling group receives a trickle of VALE funds but also relies on donations and fundraisers in restaurants, doesn’t have a problem with the arrangement. “I think the training is important to victims because it makes these people more victim-sensitive,” he says. “It reminds them of the trauma the victim is going through.”
Yet COVA’s close interactions with police and prosecutors, as well as its organizational makeup, have led some to question whether it has sufficient independence from its government sponsors. Its current fifteen-member board of directors includes six people who work for district attorneys, three police department employees and four other employees of city or state agencies. Lewis also sits on the Crime Victim Services Advisory Board, which advises the Colorado Department of Public Safety on the distribution of various state and federal victim grants. That board, too, is dominated by government interests; one member identified as a “community representative” works for the Denver district attorney.
Howard Morton calls Lewis “a good gal” but believes COVA’s priorities reflect the composition of its board. “Most of the board, and certainly most of the executive committee, is made up of DAs or employees of DAs,” he says. “Where your paycheck comes from influences you a lot.”
Morton’s group, Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons (FOHVAMP), has its share of disputes with prosecutors and law enforcement, particularly over the amount of resources allocated to unsolved murder cases. “Quite a few of our members are upset with district attorneys who would not prosecute their cases and left them to remain cold,” he notes. When Colorado voters considered an exemption from term limits for district attorneys a few years ago, COVA came out for the measure. Morton opposed it, and wrote what he calls “a very strong letter” to Lewis asking how the board could take such a position without consulting the organization’s membership.
Lewis laments that term limits ever passed. “My belief – and this is my belief, not a COVA belief – is that with term limits at the legislature and for district attorneys and even some sheriffs, we have seen a real erosion of people who understand victims’ rights,” she says.
As for her board of directors being stacked with prosecutors and cops, Lewis says the board includes crime victims, too. “They don’t wear something on their forehead that says ‘I’m a victim,’” she notes. “Most of them do come out of law enforcement, but our concerns are not system-driven. I think we have parted company with the DAs several times.”
To critics like Cain, though, COVA appears to be an unofficial lobbying arm for state prosecutors. “Is it appropriate,” she asks, “for this organization, which is really a district attorneys’ organization, to get all this money and hire a lobbyist and claim to be an independent group?”
Only a “very, very, very tiny part of our budget” goes to lobbying efforts, Lewis says, and prosecutors scoff at the idea that COVA is a front for their own agenda. Still, the nonprofit and the district attorneys’ council often seem to speak with one voice in the legislature – even if, behind the scenes, victims and prosecutors frequently disagree about plea bargains and sentencing options, how vigorously cases are investigated or developed and other issues.
The fact that prosecutors often claim to represent victims or “speak” for them in legislative matters troubles Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett. “Advocating for victims is very much a part of the role of the district attorney,” says Garnett. “However, district attorneys are not lawyers for victims. Our job is to seek justice and do the right thing in individual cases, and that sometimes means we approve a resolution to a case that the victim doesn’t want. We all run across victims who are motivated by personal revenge and other motives that are improper. Victims need to be heard, but they don’t control the process.”
The same goes for sentencing reform and other legislative battles, he adds. “There are a lot of groups that have emerged that do nothing but be a voice for victims,” he says. “That’s not the role we should play in legislation.”
Cain and others have suggested that the apparent muddling of roles could be addressed if the control of VALE funds was shifted from the judicial branch and the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Human Services. Garnett, though, thinks adding another state agency to the mix would only delay the delivery of services to crime victims and the groups that represent them.
“I don’t think that would be an improvement,” he says.
• • •
Criminologists often describe families of the victims of violent crimes as “co-victims.” The reasoning is simple: Although they didn’t suffer the crime themselves, they also were victimized, and the ongoing loss and trauma can alter their lives forever.
Last month, on the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims, state representative Rhonda Fields addressed a grieving gathering of co-victims outside the Denver courthouse. Fields spoke of “my crime,” and how it had changed her into a victim advocate and prompted her to run for public office. Technically, it was a crime against her son, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, who were gunned down in Aurora in 2005 shortly before Javad was expected to testify as a witness to another murder; the men convicted of the killings, Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens, are now on death row. But her audience knew exactly what Fields meant.
“We all experience grief very differently,” Fields said. “Some of us are still angry, and some of us are in deep depression ... but we don’t stand alone in our grief. Your pain is my pain.”
Like Fields, some co-victims find at least a degree of closure in seeing the perpetrators caught and convicted. Others, though, have to contend with a crime that’s never solved, punished or explained. It’s that kind of pain that has been the driving force behind Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, and that led Morton and his members to an unusual gambit in the state legislature two years ago – one that demonstrated that the victim movement is far from monolithic in its goals and intentions.
With the aid of volunteers, FOHVAMP created a statewide database of unsolved homicides; it turns out that three out of ten murders in Colorado are never prosecuted. The total number of unsolved killings in the state now stands at more than 1,500, by Morton’s count, and is growing by 3 percent each year. His group pushed for a state team of specially trained investigators to tackle the backlog, but state officials claimed there was no money for such an undertaking. Instead, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation managed to fund one position for a crime analyst to maintain an official database of cold cases.
That wasn’t nearly enough for FOHVAMP. In 2009, the group backed a bill by Paul Weissmann, the House majority leader, that would have funded cold-case investigations by abolishing the death penalty. Colorado has executed only one person in the past four decades, and Weissmann argued that the millions of dollars a year the state spends on the seemingly endless appeals process could be better directed to putting more killers behind bars.
District attorneys denounced the bill, describing it as a divide-and-conquer strategy. COVA and the Department of Public Safety also opposed it, while Morton found himself in an odd alliance with the ACLU, the criminal defense bar and other so-called offender advocates in lobbying for it. But he insists FOHVAMP was simply interested in getting cold cases reopened, not the larger ideological debate involved.
“We’re not one side or the other on the death penalty,” he says. “We just don’t have the investigators we need to address this problem.”
The bill squeaked through the House and was narrowly defeated in the Senate. “It came within one vote of passing both houses,” Morton sighs.
The defeat hasn’t deterred FOHVAMP from keeping pressure on the unsolved homicide issue. In 2010 a group of 26 law enforcement professionals – including a medical examiner, a crime lab specialist, several homicide detectives and an FBI behavioral analyst – began meeting quarterly on a voluntary basis to review cold cases statewide. When Morton learned that the group had cut its meetings from two days to one and had only reviewed five cases in a year, he urged his members to “ask the head of investigations for your loved one’s case to present it to this team of experts.” The review team has since seen its requests for review rise dramatically – again making the argument for a full-time squad of investigators.
Yet FOHVAMP’s decision to break ranks from the “official” victim stance on the death penalty wasn’t without some blowback. After the legislative brawl in 2009, Morton found the local VALE funds he relied on for some of his group’s operating budget had been slashed. The VALE board in the Colorado Springs judicial district, which had provided FOH-VAMP with up to $10,000 a year, refused to provide any additional funds for the next two years. Arapahoe County’s board, which had provided $18,950 for four years running, trimmed its contribution to $10,000. Jefferson County, which had supplied $18,500 in the past, cut back to $10,000, then $8,000. And the Jefferson County board specifically limited its contribution to Morton’s $36,000 annual salary to $800, when it had previously paid $5,600 for that purpose.
“They just cut us off at the knees,” Morton says.
One district’s grant evaluator informed Morton by e-mail that her board members “were not comfortable funding a significant portion of your salary because of the understanding that your activities as director of FOHVAMP involve lobbying, which grant funds cannot support.” In response, Morton pointed out that all of his group’s legislative lobbying on the death penalty bill had been paid for by a foundation out of San Francisco.
“We did not use one dollar of VALE funds,” he says. “We were legitimately doing what nonprofits do, and we were doing it with funds furnished by the Tides Foundation’s death penalty mobilization fund.”
Maureen Cain believes that FOHVAMP was singled out for punishment because it had dared to take a public position contrary to that of the district attorneys and COVA. “Because they supported [death penalty] abolition, they became the stepchild of the victim groups,” she says.
Morton is more diplomatic. “Perhaps there’s some anger on the part of some VALE board members that we’re growing so fast,” he suggests. “I think some people are getting embarrassed by the amount of unsolved homicides in Colorado.”
The official victim lobby proved to be a formidable foe in another pitched battle involving a cause dear to prison re-formers: juveniles convicted of murder in adult court and sentenced to life without parole (LWOP). As of 2009 Colorado had 48 such cases – more than Utah, Arizona and Wyoming combined, but considerably fewer than Pennsylvania (444) or Louisiana (335). In 2006 the state changed the mandatory sentence for juveniles facing life to allow for parole eligibility after serving forty years. The law wasn’t retroactive, though, so it had no impact on the existing juvenile LWOP population.
For the past several years, juvenile justice groups – notably the Denver-based Pendulum Foundation, which has been active in campaigning against LWOP measures nationwide – have urged lawmakers to consider extending a forty-year parole window for the current lifers, too. A 2011 House bill would have done just that, but prosecutors and COVA worked strenuously to defeat it. Lewis and others urged victims to “deluge” Crisanta Duran, a freshman state representative, with phone calls and e-mails opposing the bill. It died in committee 6-5, with Duran being the swing vote.
In her “Urgent Call to Action” messages, Lewis described the bill as a “sneak attack” that had been presented in violation of the notification provisions of the Victim Rights Act. “Victims’ families who would have been directly affected by this legislation were NOT notified of the hearing,” she wrote. “Victims who could not come raised objections to the violations of their constitutional rights to be notified and heard.
“Some of the offenders that this legislation would offer early release to are cop-killers ... others killed their whole families. One of the offenders – Erik Jensen – comes from a wealthy family. He threatened his parents that if they did not get him out of prison in ten years, he would kill himself. They have sunk everything into creating the Pendulum Foundation, which is focused just on getting him out.
“We who have seen the horror of murder have to be stronger and louder now than those who work to free these killers and to deliberately re-traumatize the families of murder victims.”
Mary Ellen Johnson, Pendulum’s executive director, replied to Lewis’ scorching e-mail with one of her own, saying that COVA’s broadside was “filled with erroneous information, and in at least one case, an outright lie.” It wasn’t Pendulum’s duty to notify crime victims of pending legislation, she pointed out; if anyone had that obligation, it was the district attorneys and COVA itself. The bill’s supporters weren’t advocating “early release” of all the lifers convicted as juveniles, either. As for Jensen, he “never threatened his parents or uttered any of the rest of your nonsense.... Furthermore, the Pendulum Foundation was never created solely to get the Jensens’ son out.”
While Jensen’s parents supplied major support to launch Pendulum, the nonprofit has since developed other large donors, Johnson says. She insists that not all victim groups opposed the LWOP reform bill – but the victims who supported it evidently don’t speak for COVA or vice versa. “They tried to paint us as being very sneaky,” she says. “The fact is, there had been a lot of communication between the bill’s sponsors and the DAs.”
Lewis doesn’t expect the LWOP issue to go away. While she says she’s sympathetic to the idea that many people who committed horrific crimes as juveniles were themselves abused, it rankles her when people refer to offenders as “victims” of a broken system. In her view, there’s a very distinct line between perpetrators and victims.
“It’s not that I don’t want to build consensus,” Lewis says. “But with some people, I just disagree with where they’re going.”
• • •
Sharletta Evans left her two young sons and their teen cousin in the car while she went into a relative’s house in northeast Denver. It was 1995, and the neighborhood had been plagued by recent drive-bys. Evans had come to retrieve another child and take him out of the line of fire.
Gangbangers cruising the area mistook her car for the ride of some rivals. They opened fire on the car and the duplex while Evans was inside. One of the bullets claimed her youngest, Casson Xavier Evans, better known as Biscuit, as he slept in the back of the parked car. He was three years old.
The shooters, fifteen-year-old Paul Littlejohn and sixteen-year-old Raymond Johnson, were sentenced to life without parole. Biscuit’s mother was sentenced to grief and sorrow and trying to find a path through something that didn’t make sense at all.
The victim advocates did what they could. “They made sure my family understood the charges and that we knew whenever there was a hearing,” Evans recalls. “There was victim compensation that helped us bury our son.”
But after the killers were put away, the support apparatus moved on to the next case. And everyone seemed to expect Evans to move on, too. “You’re getting full attention, and then you’re just kind of left,” she says.
Evans became involved in anti-violence campaigns and started a program for at-risk kids called RedCross BlueShield Gang Prevention. She struggled with the bitterness of her loss and sought to forgive the two boys, now men, who had taken her son from her. A turning point came when Littlejohn’s mother asked if she could come see her.
“She came to me and took responsibility,” Evans says. “She expressed how her actions, her lack of parenting, aided in his decision-making. She apologized for him and for herself.”
The visit convinced Evans that she wasn’t wasting her time in her gang-prevention efforts, which focused on promoting parenting and addressing the “hole” in the life of the typical gangbanger. “It let me know I was on the right track,” she explains. “It was a huge part of my healing.”
Both of the shooters have written letters from prison expressing remorse for the killing. Two years ago, Evans decided that she wanted to meet Raymond Johnson face-to-face: “I felt I had reached a cap in my healing, and I needed to go further. This was something I needed to do for myself, my family and my community, as well, which has been affected by this. I would like it to be effective for him, too, so he can be the most productive person he can be in his situation.”
But until the passage of the revised restorative justice bill in 2011, there was no process in Colorado’s adult justice system to allow such meetings. Evans testified in support of the bill. Among the opponents who showed up that day was Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey. It was “very challenging” and uncomfortable, Evans says, to find herself on the opposite side of the fence from the man who put her son’s killers away.
Evans hopes to be able to sit down and talk to Johnson soon. But it’s not clear when that might actually happen; the Department of Corrections has a list of hundreds of victims who want to meet their offenders and no funds to pay for the costs of the meetings, including transportation and facilitators. In order to get the bill passed, Representative Lee and other sponsors agreed to cut its fiscal impacts to the bone.
“I pulled a rabbit out of a hat,” Lee says. “It was all in the spirit of compromise, with no money attached.”
Lee says he’s working with the DOC to get the pilot program going. He has dozens of restorative justice facilitators who’ve agreed to provide services for free and says prison officials have been “very forthcoming” in their concerns. “I don’t know if there’s institutional opposition to restorative justice,” he says. “There is a lack of understanding. People are afraid of the unknown.”
Many victim groups have welcomed the arrival of such a program, even if the funding is meager. “It’s not a program for everybody, but it should be there for people who need it,” Cannata says. “It has to be a controlled environment, or it will damage both parties. If it helps victims move on, that would be a good thing. And if it influences offenders so that they never commit another crime, so much the better.”
Evans plans to start a restorative justice initiative of her own, working with victims to “get their needs met in a timely manner.” But right now she’s struggling, like a lot of nonprofit activists, to collect just a few drops from the vast streams of grant money that flow toward the major victim interest groups in the state. “I have spoken with COVA, and they’ve kind of shooed me away,” she says. “They’re not really interested in restorative justice.”
Her gang-prevention program lost its offices a few months ago after pilot funding ran out. “We’re looking for funds for a building now. A lot of minority nonprofits have their credibility questioned, but we’ve been very active in the Arapahoe County community for years. We do need a building, though, to be effective.”
Lewis says COVA welcomes the growing diversity of the victim movement. “I’m encouraged by the Howard Mortons and the Joe Cannatas,” she says. “There has been more grassroots victim legislation than with any other cause. Not all of it has been good. But then you have people who serve a population that hasn’t been served and bring to light issues we weren’t paying attention to.”
Evans has thought for years about what she would say if she ever sat down with Raymond Johnson or Paul Littlejohn to discuss the terrible thing they did that extinguished one life and altered so many others. She knows the words. But she’s still finding her voice.
This article was originally published by Westword (www.westword.com) on October 20, 2011, and is reprinted with permission.