No Court, No Conviction — How Jackson County Prosecutors Are Handling Some Felony Cases
Late at night in February 2017, Samuel Gillis Jr. drove his SUV to Hope City, a community center at East 24th and Quincy that feeds the homeless and provides services for drug addicts.
Gillis was drunk, so he doesn’t remember what happened next. But according to Kansas City, Missouri, police, Gillis got out of his SUV and punched a man who worked there three times, breaking his nose badly enough to require two surgeries.
After he was arrested and charged with first-degree assault a few months later, Gillis told police he wanted to apologize to the victim. Thanks to a new justice program in Jackson County, he would get to.
Prosecutors in Jackson County are using a U.S. Department of Justice grant to try out restorative justice, which takes a community approach to prosecuting crime, without the court dates, trials or convictions.
"The criminal justice system is in need of new ways to help victims without causing greater harm than is necessary to address the offending behavior," Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said.
The program is unique because it’s the only one in the country processing Class A felonies, which are the highest level crimes, including murder, kidnapping, aggravated assault and some drug crimes.
The prosecutor's office used restorative justice in 10 cases so far, hand-selected by Assistant District Attorney Kate Brubacher. Gillis’ was the first. He said he was shocked when his lawyer told him he didn’t have to go to jail.
"When my lawyer told me that, I'm like, 'Nah man, you playing.' He said, 'No, I'm not,'" Gillis said.
Instead, he appeared before a "neighborhood accountability board." Rather than attorneys and a judge, it was community members and trained mediators from the Center for Conflict Resolution who recommended a "sentence" for him. But rather than jail time, they turned to anger management and substance abuse counseling.
"It helped me pay attention to what to do. You don't want to go back to jail. I already know what I did to get in there, so I know not to do that. The programs help you learn things that you need to do," he said.
Gillis, 43, had a rough childhood. He said he became part of a gang at a young age, and never imagined he'd live past 18. Through the counseling, he said he's learned how to recognize and work through his own trauma. Since then, he’s been able to land more carpentry jobs and be there for his children.
"You got to want to change," he said. "I like life. I know I made mistakes. The program is good, but you have to want to do it."
A big part of this process was Jesse Scoggan, the man Gillis punched that night. Scoggan also had to agree to this approach for the prosecutors to drop the charges. When it came time for them to meet at the mediation last summer, Scoggan didn’t show — which was his choice. Restorative justice aims to heal the victim, too.
Gillis said he could understand why Scoggan wouldn’t come.
"I mean, who would want to sit in front of a monster? Even with my change, even with my change, he could still see me as a monster," Gillis said.
But, last week, they finally met, and with the help of mediator Annette Lantz-Simmons from the Center for Conflict Resolution, Scoggan told Gillis how the assault had affected him.
"It was just kind of, you know, shocking to me. Of course, at first, I was angry," Scoggan said. "But, I'm just being completely honest, I was a heroin addict for 11 years."
Scoggan pulled up his sleeve and pointed to his arm.
"I mean, I still have collapsed veins. So, I went through my own stage of, I did a lot of really not good stuff to a lot of people, myself, and people took a chance on me. I felt like if I deserve a second chance, anybody deserves a second chance."
Gillis' head fell into his hands. Through tears, he thanked Scoggan.
"You gave me another chance at life and I appreciate that. I've been thanking you from the day that my lawyer told me that they had a program for me to do," he said.
Scoggan said it was perhaps as much a shock to him as it was to Gillis that he had a choice in the matter. Scoggan got to decide whether he wanted to take the man who assaulted him to court or agree to the terms of his rehabilitation. Scoggan said it was an easy choice.
"To me, this is more rewarding than 10 years. Honestly, two, three years down the road, I probably would have felt remorse that he would have been locked up that long," he said.
Gillis and Scoggan found they could relate to each other when they met last week, and both were surprised by that.
Criminologist Toya Like said she’s not surprised.
"The same risk factors for offending are the exact same risk factors for victimization," Like said.
But, she said, when cases go through the traditional court system, victims and offenders don’t get to meet as Gillis and Scoggan did. The crime becomes a crime against the state, and the victim becomes a witness. But when it comes to the restorative justice approach, both parties have a voice.
Like said there’s room for that in our current criminal justice system, but that it all too often depends on the political climate.
"The criminal justice system right now is really centered on punishment, and so many of the decisions are based on fear of crime and not necessarily on crime patterns. Public policy, by and large, is driven by fear," Like said. "That fear of crime has been increasing over the past few decades, even though crime rates have been declining drastically."
Given that fear, and this “tough on crime” era, Like said Jackson County may remain unique in its innovative approach to violent crime, at least for now. But with the federal funding set to expire later this year, prosecutors must find other funds to keep the program alive.