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Restorative justice is the heart of nonviolent change

Mar 08, 2013

from the entry by Ken Butigan on ZNet:

We’re so trained in the art and science of retribution that it’s sometimes hard to get a fix on what restorative justice is. I got a clue several years ago when my colleague Cynthia Stateman shared the following story. Cynthia was very close to her Uncle John. He was a doctor in their hometown, and when she was growing up she would often make the rounds with him visiting the sick. He was the town’s first African-American physician, and had built a clinic that served sharecroppers and mill workers. One night, years later, Cynthia got a call from a cousin telling her that her uncle had been killed by a young white man intent on robbing his clinic. The assailant had shoved her 75-year-old uncle against a wall. He fell, gasped for breath — and then suddenly died. The would-be robber phoned 911 but then ran for it, only to be quickly captured. Cynthia immediately flew home to be with her family.

Cynthia has since written about the experience that unfolded once she got there in her article “Soul Force” (published in Engage: Exploring Nonviolent Living). In the midst of their grief and anger, her family had been unexpectedly asked by the public defender for help. The district attorney was going to seek the death penalty — would they intervene to urge the D.A. to file charges more commensurate with the crime? As grievous as this violence was, the lawyer said, it was a stretch to call what happened a capital offense. John’s son threw the public defender out of his house. But the rest of the family wouldn’t let it go. Right there they plunged into a struggle with justice — what was just in this case? What was the right thing to do?

In the end, most of them decided that they needed more information — and they could only get this from the offender. They were not, though, given easy access to him. “We bullied, badgered, threatened and made a whole lot of noise, before the attorneys would agree to set up a visit,” Cynthia writes. Finally, they got their meeting. Sitting before them was a 19-year-old named David, who, by his own admission, had been on a crime spree. On top of that, he owed someone money and was having trouble coming up with it. He was being threatened, so he had decided to rob the clinic. Ironically, he and his family had been the recipient of her uncle’s generosity — they had gotten free inoculations and other health care over the years at the center.

He seemed remorseful. He also seemed resigned to whatever happened. Like his father and other family members, he would be spending years in jail.

This seemed like the end of the story. But then something shifted. On the drive back home, while ruminating on this kid (“Jeez, what a loser.” “Face it, David doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of turning his life around.” “He’s illiterate.” “Pathetic.”), one of Cynthia’s cousins started composing a list of book titles. By the time they got to the house, they had concocted a proposal: David had to learn to read and then plow through a long list of books, including The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He had to get his GED and, as a condition of parole, learn a trade and keep a job. For good measure, he had to do “five or ten years” of community service.

When they presented their ideas to the D.A., he balked. But the family stood its ground, and the charges were reduced — and their recommended conditions were submitted to the court. David would spend years in prison, but he would not be heading to death row.

The last part of the story I found unbelievable when Cynthia first told it to me — and I find it unbelievable still, after all these years. If I didn’t know Cynthia I would be skeptical. But she’s a good friend so I have to believe it. The essence is that David petitioned the court to let him attend the funeral. The request was granted and the family, incredibly, invited him to join the procession and to sit with them.

After many people in the packed church offered testimonials honoring Cynthia’s uncle, David stood up. He said to the assembly, “‘A good man is dead because of what I did. I’m sorry.’ He gestured toward my cousins. ‘They spared my life. I didn’t deserve that. I’m going to be in prison for a very long time, but I’m not being sent there to die. What I want to ask all of you here is: Is there any way you can forgive me?’” The pastor asked him to kneel, and slowly the congregation came forward to prayerfully lay hands of healing on him. One by one, Cynthia’s cousins did the same, including the one who had pitched the public defender out of his house.

Read the whole article.

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