Sentencing Circles and Restorative Justice

An examination
by Chris Hibbard

Sentencing Circles and Restorative Justice

Fort Collins, Colorado has a population of over 10,000, and is growing rapidly.

In 1998, 15-year-old Justin Barton and two of his cousins were at the Foothills Fashion Mall. After dinner they went driving around town with a paintball gun. Upon his cousins telling him he could not go out shooting with them, Justin reached into the trunk though the back seat, pulled out a paintball gun, and fired into a group of girls at a nearby ice cream parlour. Only Justin seemed to notice that he had shot one of them in the face. The victim , 15-year-old Jorel Travis was permanently blinded in one eye.

Two months later, Justin appeared in juvenile court to answer to a charge of second degree assault with a deadly weapon. He was already on probation for a charge of attempted theft.
He pled guilty to the charges as part of a plea agreement, calling for a sentence of probation, with the terms and conditions to be set by the Juvenile Magistrate. A maximum possible sentence for Justin would have been two years probation and 45 days in jail. If tried as adult, he could face two to eight years in the state pen.

The case began to involve restorative justice out of Justin’s desire to meet the victim face to face. When he had entered his guilty plea, he had explained, “I never wanted to hurt anybody, but I was being very thoughtless at the time. I understand if you never forgive me. If you don’t get your vision back, I would be happy to donate the part of my eye you need.”

Jorel Travis agreed to meet, “to talk to him to see how he really feels about it.” Travis and her mother were motivated to resolve the case while educating people about the dangers of paintball guns to prevent future incidents.

Due to the circumstances, a family group conference was chaired, as a restorative process for healing the harm of crime. Held at the local United Way office, a neutral location, the conference was held the day before the sentencing to accommodate the presence of everyone who wanted to attend.

The conference included Justin, his aunt and uncle whom he lived with, both of his divorced parents and his probation officer. Jorel and her family were there, as were one of the girls who witnessed the shooting and two others who did same. Sitting in the middle of the 15 attendees was Leslie Young, a trained mediator for family group conferences and a Loveland police office, who coordinated the process and made the necessary contacts and arrangements. One of the 15 was designated to record the main points during the dialogue.

They all were seated in a circle, with no tables or other barriers in the way. As the four-hour conference began, Leslie gave an overview of the conference reminded them all that their participation was purely voluntary. Justin then began by talking about the incident and how it had occurred, plus things he had felt at the time and since. Jorel explained the harm done to her, how she felt, and what she hoped to get out of the conference. Jorel’s mother expressed the outcomes and harms resulting from the offense, including the loss of her job.

The discussion continued around the circle, with each of the victim’s friends and family members talking about the shooting’s impact on their lives. Justin’s family and friends told of the effects of the offense on them, the shock and shame they felt, and their thoughts of an aunt who had been blind in one eye since birth and an older cousin who had taught Justin how to shoot.
Justin was visibly moved and cried more than once throughout the conference.

A key theme during the discussion was concern for the safety of others involved with paintball guns and of the need to inform others of the dangers of paintballing. The discussion turned to answering questions Leslie asked the group:

What needs to happen? What do we want to accomplish? What do we need to do?

The group’s final decision was that instead of community service, Justin would talk to school children and write letters to the local newspaper and regional teen magazines about the risks and dangers of paintballing. Justin’s family assumed financial responsibility for the out-of-pocket expenses incurred by Jorel and her family. An uncle to Justin offered to provide a computer for Jorel. Justin’s grandmother offered to give rides to Jorel when her mother was busy. In order to pay the financial obligations, Justin needed a job. One of the people present thought her husband could provide Justin a job in carpentry. All present agreed to initiate a write-in campaign to legislators requesting the public be warned of the dangers of paintball guns.

Justin read a letter of apology to Jorel that he had written prior to his first meeting with his probation officer, in which he again offered to donate his eye to the victim. Copies prepared of each point of the conference that was reached by consensus formed the agreement of those present to the terms of justice. A final agreement was prepared, and each person responsible for performing a certain part of the agreement was asked to sign the document. Leslie thanked those who had attended for working through this process to help heal and repair the harm resulting from the incident. Telephone numbers were exchanged and the mothers of victim and offender hugged.

The next day was the sentencing hearing in front of the Juvenile Magistrate, and the friends and family of Justin and Jorel mingled in the hall before court and sat together in the courtroom. Several of them testified to the quality of the conferences proceedings. The probation officer described the conference as well and gave a copy of the final agreement to the court and the attorneys.

With the Magistrate’s support for the agreement, Justin was sentenced to two years of probation and 45 days in jail. But the jail term was suspended, except for six days in jail on weekends. Jorel’s family had been opposed to any serious jail time.

Two months later, Justin’s letter to the editor appeared in the Fort Collins “Coloradoan” entitled “Teen learned the hard way about paintball-gun dangers.” In it he gave specifics of the incident resulting in the injury to Jorel, expressed how sorry he was that such a result had never crossed his mind before he shot the paintball gun.

The families continued to stay in contact, and Justin never breached his probation. He is now 24 years old.

This is just one of many case studies that exist in North America and the world regarding Restorative Justice, Sentencing Circles, and Victim Offender Family Conferences similar to this. All of them involve resolution and closure, restitution and education, healing and justice.

~ by Chris Hibbard on October 31, 2008.

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