There was a time when a teenager caught committing a minor offense would get a ticket and a court date. Now it might land them in the living room with their grandmother, whose looks of disappointment are only made worse by the punishment she doles out.
That is just the fate that could await some first-time juvenile offenders in Gunnison County under the programs of Gunnison Area Restorative Practices (GARP), formerly known as Gunnison Valley Alliance for Community Restorative Justice, which hopes to correct illegal behavior through family involvement, rather than a trip through the system.
According to Cheryl Coffey, coordinator and case manager for GARP, the restorative justice meeting serves several purposes: it forces the youth to talk about the offense with people they look up to; it shows them the people their offense affects; it sets a fitting punishment for the crime; and it shows the parents of the young person that they are not alone in trying to raise their child.
“Over time we’ve come to realize that a lot of the youth in the community were involved in minor and possession offenses like marijuana or alcohol. So about a year ago we started doing what we call a ‘minor and possession conference,’” says Coffey.
The conference is a variation of the original restorative justice system and consists of the offender sitting in a room with influential people like members of the extended family or community, as well as the mediator. The intent is to educate the teen about the harm his or her actions could have caused to themselves, to the family or to the community.
“Part of my job is making sure everyone feels safe and comfortable,” says Coffey. “I’ll do a conference with the parents and then with the kids present to show that they can get along. I usually leave to let the family and other participants talk and then come back in—hopefully when they have come to an agreement about the cause of the behavior and ways to correct it.”
Although the idea for involving family and community members in dealing with young offenders isn’t new, it was revived in the late 1960s and ’70s and has become part of the standard treatment in places such as Canada and New Zealand.
The idea came to Gunnison County in an organized way in April 2002 by way of a minister who created the first board of directors and wrote the articles of incorporation that would govern the program, known as Restorative Justice.
It was made official in October of that year and a director was appointed to oversee the program.
“We are at the head of the game in terms of the state,” says Coffey, “although it has been very big for quite a while over in Larimer County. But programs in other parts of the state, like over in Salida and in Jefferson County, are just getting started.”
While the county provides office space for the program, funding comes almost exclusively from grants obtained through the efforts of Don Wills, the program’s executive director.
Many of the referrals to GARP are appropriate cases handed over from the District Attorney’s office, which is near the GARP office in the County Courthouse.
“Sometimes we have people refuse Restorative Practice, and all it takes is a walk across the hall and they are back in the system. It can happen so fast it makes their head spin, and it is the difference between having a record and not,” says Wills.
Another component of the program that has not been used as regularly is Family Group Decision Making, which uses the same group model to work through problems facing families referred to the program through the Department of Health and Human Services.
With the increased number of options GARP has to bring families in, there are increased opportunities for grants and funding.
In its first year, there was no funding for the program and by the second year there was around $15,000 to work with. Last year the organization’s operating budget was approximately $78,000.
“On the IRS form you can see how we doubled our budget every year for the first five years, until last year when we went up about 30 percent,” says Wills. “That is a huge increase for a program that started just a few years ago.