How victim rights became a juggernaut shaping spending, laws and the future of punishment
Oct 28, 2011
Newly elected as a state representative, Pete Lee hit the Capitol last January fired up with big ideas. The biggest of them all was the restorative-justice bill he introduced shortly after the session began.
....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.
....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.
...."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.