DENVER – On Tuesday, Restorative Denver, a restorative justice program that allows offenders to take responsibility for their actions, celebrated its second year in operation with a virtual fundraiser as a part of Colorado Gives Day.
The Denver District Attorney’s Office created the Restorative Denver program in partnership with The Conflict Center.
“There are cases that we really don’t need to take through the traditional criminal justice system, but actually we can benefit, and the community can benefit, by having those cases handled in a community-based setting," said Denver District Attorney Beth McCann.
Most of the cases referred to Restorative Denver involve misdemeanor crimes, but recently, the program has expanded to include felony cases as well.
“We look very closely at what the crime is, whether or not the person has prior criminal activity in the past and if they’re willing to accept responsibility and change their behavior,” McCann said.
So far this year, 148 people have participated in Restorative Denver. Last year, there were 40 participants.
“In our second year, we’re doing more than triple that number, which I think shows the commitment of district attorneys to the program,” said Christine Brown-Haugen, deputy district attorney and head of Restorative Denver.
Brown-Haugen says 107 participants have completed the program and made amends for their crimes.
“That can range from writing a letter of apology to restitution and paying for the damage that was done,” McCann said.
Once the program is complete, those cases are dismissed or sealed.
"Participants have no criminal record as it pertains to the case, which is really exciting moving forward," said Brown-Haugen. "They won’t have any collateral consequences of getting jobs, going to school, getting loans."
One person who helped draft restorative justice legislation and inspired programs like Restorative Denver is founder of Restorative Justice Enthusiast, Sharletta Evans.
“I’m really thrilled that philosophy of restorative justice is catching on,” Evans said. “Restorative justice has a way of touching your inner soul and spirit to where you go in as a victim, you come out as a survivor.”
On December 21, 1995, Evans' 3-year-old son, Casson Xavier Evans, was killed in a gang-style shooting.
“Losing Casson that night changed my life traumatically,” the mother said.
Days after Casson’s death, Evans saw one of the shooters, 15-year-old Raymond Johnson, for the first time during a pre-trial hearing
“I walked into the courtroom and literally looked at this baby, 15-year-old scrawny little boy, a kid,” she said.
Evans said in that moment, the anger she felt toward Johnson began to subside.
“When I looked at him, when he turned around to me, faced me, it was if his chest opened up and I was able to see within him… see his heart to where he was not this terrible killer, heartless young man," she said. "He was not the picture that was painted. This young man was not the worst of the worst, a throwaway."
Years later, when Johnson was no longer a teen, Evans talked to him face-to-face about taking her son’s life. She forgave Johnson, and now considers him a member of her family.
Evans credits her interaction with Johnson as the inspiration for her life’s work- helping victims, their families, and offenders begin restorative justice work.
While establishing a relationship with Johnson, Evans also wrote letters to other juvenile offenders, who she says society “threw away."
“Ms. Sharletta Evans, she wrote every juvenile in there," said Cero Smith. "I still have my letter."
On March 22, 1994, Smith was involved in gang fight in Montbello that ended with the death of Daniel Dante Ross.
“I was responsible for his death,” Smith said.
At the time, Smith was 16 years old. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 48 years in prison.
“In the early years, I didn’t have any feelings about anything,” he said.
But a few years into his sentence, Smith was watching TV when he saw a shooting that took place close to his mother’s home. He called his mom and learned some troubling news.
“She was like yeah, that was your cousin’s son, he died," Smith recalled. "And when I spoke to her (Smith's cousin) on the phone, I never heard a sound like that, it still echoes. That was a pivotal point for me, hearing the pain in her voice and just knowing I did that to someone else's mother."
At the time of his sentencing, Smith says Ross’s mother told him he deserved to spend each day of his 48 years in prison. He now wants to apologize to Ross's mother, but understands if she isn't ready to receive it.
“I’m not entitled to a restorative conversation, I’m not entitled to any type of forgiveness. My responsibility is to be a man, say what I did, give my heartfelt apology for that. It doesn’t undue what was done,” Smith said. “I tell my story in hopes that it has an impact, because a lot of times our victims don’t want a conversation with us. They don’t want anything, and that’s okay.”
Smith was released from prison after nearly 24 years behind bars. He says he hopes those who can take part in restorative conversations do so.