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Restoring lives: Now that’s Justice

Jun 15, 2011

from Patrice Gaines' article in Yes!:

It was the summer of 2009. I was on my second day of work for the U.S. Census Bureau, knocking on doors in rural South Carolina.

My cell phone rang. It was my supervisor.

“Patrice, headquarters called me and told me to send you home immediately and to take back all government property,” she said. “I don’t know why.”

She knew me as a 61-year-old gray-haired mother, a former Washington Post reporter, an author and motivational speaker. She knew nothing about me 40 years ago, when I was a 21-year-old heroin user. I knew exactly why they were sending me home: I am a convicted felon.

The more time I spent in prisons, the more I came to believe that there had to be a way to keep our streets safe without throwing people away.

....Then I discovered what I had been looking for—an alternative to incarceration called restorative justice.

In restorative justice, all of the parties impacted by an offense—offender, victim, and community—are involved in determining a resolution that addresses the harm caused by the crime. Restorative justice acknowledges that crime is about more than breaking the law: Therefore, the resolution is about more than simple punishment.

In North America, restorative justice has roots in the very communities that have been hurt most by the prison system. There is evidence that similar approaches were used by West African slaves brought to the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia and by Native Americans. 

....I met Morris Jenkins, a criminal justice scholar at the University of Toledo. Jenkins’ work demonstrates how communities have historically resolved crime. The Sea Islands have preserved much of the unique Gullah culture of the West Africans who were brought there as slaves generations ago. Jenkins found that before there was a bridge from the islands to the mainland, the island people used restorative justice to settle civil disputes and some criminal complaints. “They called it the Just Law,” Jenkins told me recently. “One of the ladies in her 90s told me a story about how they used to have these community meetings at faith houses—little shacks, not churches. They would bring together the offender and his folks, and victims and their folks, and the elders—and they would come up with a resolution.”

As I investigated these stories, I realized restorative justice offered everything my experience with the corrections system did not. I had wanted to change my life, so I could be a good daughter, sister, and mother. But I didn’t know how to change. Being on probation, paying restitution, and being disregarded when I applied for a job did not address my desire to be a good person or help boost my self-esteem. The punishment and judgment against me crippled me even more.

Once I committed my crime, I never felt as if I was part of a community. No one saw the power in getting me to realize the harm I had caused to my family. My parents were ashamed. I disappointed friends and neighbors who had helped me over the years. I knew that some of them probably even felt I had brought shame to our close-knit neighborhood. No one ever considered finding a way for me to give back, to feel forgiven and accepted again. I had to put all of the pieces together myself—find a way to repair the harm I caused, forgive myself, and be a part of the community again—a process that took years.

Read the whole article.

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