The Power of Restorative Justice

The Power of Restorative Justice

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

It was the morning of May 23rd, 2012.  Sharletta Evans and her older son, Hurd, wereapprehensive when they walked into the prison to meet the man who murdered her three-year-old son and Hurd’s little brother 17 years ago. Raymond Johnson stood up from where he was sitting and solemnly lowered his head in shame.

Sharletta Evans / Image courtesy

Evan’s first request of Johnson, serving life in prison without parole was to touch his hands.

Evans needed to touch the hands that pulled the trigger that killed her son.

Prior to Colorado HB-13-1254 being passed in 2011, it would not have been possible for Evans and Johnson to meet face to face.

The passing of HB-13-1254 prompted a Colorado Department of Corrections pilot restorative justice program.

Restorative justice is a practice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by crime by bringing victims, offenders, and community members together to reconcile how that will be done. Outcomes from the process can be transformational.

Colorado HB-13-1254 was drafted by restorative justice advocate, former criminal- defense attorney, and state representative Pete Lee. The bill provides district attorneys in four Denver judicial districts with the ability to evaluate and refer victims and offenders of crime to the restorative justice process. The bill also requires offenders to pay a small fee for the service which is used to expand coordinating counsels and create pilot programs. 

Participation in the restorative justice process is voluntary for both victims and offenders.

Johnson, the offender in the case involving the death of three-year-old Casson, Evans’ son, initiated a request to meet with Evans in a retributive setting.

Although Evans was initially ambivalent about Johnson’s request, she was the first victim who agreed to participate in the pilot program since its inception in 2012.

The crime occurred in 1995 when Johnson was only 16-years old.

Evans and Hurd had to be courageous to speak with Johnson. Part of the restorative conversation involved revisiting the crime.

Raymond Johnson

On that fateful night 17-years-ago, Evans went to a northeast Denver duplex to pick up her grandniece. Evans was protecting her grandniece from drive-by shootings that were occurring in her neighborhood. She left her 3-year-old son, Casson, in the car while she went to get her grandniece. In a matter of minutes shots were fired and one of the bullets went through Casson’s head killing him instantly. Investigators determined the bullets that killed Casson originated from Johnson’s gun.

The restorative justice session was powerful for both Evans and Johnson. Both Evans and Johnson experienced an array of emotions throughout their discussion. Evans expressed how angry she felt even after 17-years of grieving about her son’s death.

Evans could still find forgiveness in her heart for Johnson who was only 16 at the time of the shootings. She does not want to see Johnson spend the rest of his life in prison. Evans wishes Johnson might live in society with a purpose deriving from his experience as a juvenile.

Even though Evans had processed her son’s death for 16 years, she still had a desire to hear what Johnson had to say about his crime.

Johnson expressed remorse for killing little Casson back in 1995. Evans and Hurd could sense Johnson’s authentic repentance for the crime.

The outcome of the restorative justice dialog was successful for all involved in the facilitation.  Evans is satisfied with her decision to take part in the process. She wants to continue having contact with Johnson, but it will take time and patience to develop a new relationship.

Johnson is a changed man since he started spending time in prison. He accomplished his intention for requesting the restorative justice conference. Johnson experienced emotional and spiritual catharsis through the restorative conversation with his victims.

Evans has become an advocate for restorative justice since her successful meeting with Johnson and speaks about her experience with the pilot project.

The Evans/Johnson case is an example of how practicing restorative justice with adult inmates can be healing for both victims and offenders no matter how much time has passed since the crime occurred.

Colorado HB-1254 emphasizes using restorative justice for juvenile offenses, but the bill does not address sources of funding for adult offenders to participate in the process. Peggy Evans and Lynn Lee (Pete Lee’s wife) volunteered their facilitating services for the Evans-Johnson

Pete Lee’s (the initiator of HB-1254) first volunteer experience as a restorative justice facilitator opened his eyes to more possibilities for restorative justice. He saw how victim-offender conferences worked with juveniles and had an “epiphany” that they could be just as valuable in an adult setting. However, his legislation did not provide for funding adult services.

If restorative justice were to be available for every adult inmate who is sincerely willing to meet with his or her victims, prisons would eventually go out of business.