Jackson Co. prosecutor has new way to empower victims, reduce crime without jail time

Assault victim forgives assailant facing felony charges with aid of new mediation program

As part of a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, a Jackson County prosecutor is able to choose felony cases that might benefit from a new approach in resolving crimes outside the walls of the Jackson County Courthouse.
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As part of a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, a Jackson County prosecutor is able to choose felony cases that might benefit from a new approach in resolving crimes outside the walls of the Jackson County Courthouse.

Samuel E. Gillis Jr. waited for 790 agonizing and emotionally draining days for this life-changing moment to finally arrive on a wind-whipped Thursday afternoon.

In July 2017, prosecutors charged Gillis with first-degree assault charges for punching a man in the face. Gillis, now 43, is a criminal defendant who took advantage of restorative justice.

The recently launched effort, offered by the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, can help criminal defendants avoid jail time if they participate in a diversion program that requires them to accept responsibility for their actions, pay restitution, complete substance abuse treatment and meet face to face with those they harmed.

On Thursday, Gillis shook hands and sat across a conference room table from his victim, Jesse Scoggan.

“Man, I’m sorry man,” said Gillis as he choked back tears. “I apologize with all of my heart, soul and might.”

Scoggan, who spent 11 years addicted heroin, accepted Gillis’ apology.

“My experience was I did a lot of things that was harmful to a lot of people and people took a chance on me and I was able to better myself and the community as well,” Scoggan said. “I felt like if I deserved a second chance then; anybody deserves a second chance.”

Through the Innovative Prosecution Strategies grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Jackson County is seeking to resolve certain street crimes without having them go before a judge. The idea is called restorative justice. It encourages offenders to understand the harm they’ve caused to victims and take responsibility for their actions, according to prosecutors.

An assistant Jackson County prosecutor is assigned to review specific crimes that occurred in the Kansas City Police Department’s East Patrol Division to see if they might benefit from the program.

Those cases are then presented to the Neighborhood Accountability Board, a citizen’s review panel trained by the Center for Conflict Resolution. The board arranges mediation between the defendant and the victim. They work out a diversion plan that may include substance abuse treatment, anger management or restitution. The offender also may be required to apologize.

If the victim agrees, the prosecutor’s office would dismiss the case. An option to re-file the case is held open if the defendant does not complete the steps required by the accountability board.

“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,” said Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker. “Restorative justice efforts can obviously work for the offender but they are also beneficial to victims.”

Jackson County prosecutors have diverted about 10 felony cases to its restorative justice program since early 2018. The cases included assaults, burglaries, a forgery and the case of a pregnant woman who was caught switching price tags at a Walmart.

Because the program is still new, prosecutors have not been able to calculate how much money taxpayers have saved as a result of criminal cases being dissolved in lieu of appearing before a judge.

Similar programs elsewhere focus on misdemeanor crimes. Jackson County is among the first prosecutor’s offices in the United States that refers felony cases to its restorative justice program.

Under restorative justice, victims get to tell their story to the person that harmed them and then have a say in the resolution, said Annette Lantz-Simmons, executive director for the Center for Conflict Resolution.

“We are so focused on punishment and separating people who harm us,” Lantz-Simmons said. “That is the only way we feel safe. We believe that this (program) is one of the answers that need to happen for this to become a way of life rather than picking up a weapon to solve an issue.”

The incident involving Gillis happened after a night of heavy drinking on Feb. 11, 2017. Angry about an ongoing custody dispute with the mother of his children, Gillis said he took out his frustrations on an unsuspecting victim.

The attack, which was captured on video surveillance, showed Gillis pull into the parking lot of Hope City, a church on East 24th Street near Quincy Avenue. He stepped out of the SUV and punched Scoggan, who happened to be walking by, in the face.

Scoggan, a case manager at the church that feeds the hungry and helps drug addicts, suffered a bloody nose and had to be treated at a hospital. A few months later, police arrested Gillis at his home. He was later charged with first-degree assault.

If convicted, Gillis would’ve faced between 10 to 30 years in prison.

Prosecutors felt Gillis, who had previously served time in prison, would be a good candidate for restorative justice. Scoggan supported the idea and wanted Gillis to get treatment for his drinking, attend anger management and apologize. Prosecutors set up mediation with Gillis and his family.

So far, Gillis has complied with the restorative justice requirements.

“This program is 100 percent good,” he said. “I would recommend it for anyone who has an anger problem, addiction. It could be whatever.”

The meeting on Thursday at the Center for Conflict Resolution office at 63rd Street and Paseo was the first time Gillis and Scoggan had seen each other since the attack.

“I didn’t have a lot of expectation. I really didn’t know what to think,” Scoggan told Gillis. “But I did think it would be good to actually sit down — especially since they told me how good you were doing.

“And it made me feel, I don’t know, grateful. It made me feel grateful that we’re able to do this,” he said.

Gillis lowered his head, resting it in his right hand. He pinched his eyes shut with his thumb and forefinger to hold back tears.

“You gave me another chance at life and I appreciate that,” Gillis said as his voice cracked. “I’m glad that you’re OK.”

Glenn E. Rice covers crime, courts and breaking news for The Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 1988. Rice is a Kansas City native and a graduate of the University of Central Missouri.