What Should Justice Look Like?


Sermon – “What Should Justice Look Like?”
First Parish Church – Portland, ME
January 26, 2015

Nearly three years ago pastor Mark Stringer at the First Unitarian Church in Des Moines delivered a sermon on “The New Jim Crow”, Michelle Alexander’s powerful book on Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness.

A week later I sat with Mark in his office. We talked about Alexander’s book and considered the question:

“What does Restorative Justice have to say about mass incarceration?”

And we considered a second question:

“Should Restorative Justice lead the way for the social movement that Alexander called for?”

We didn’t answer either question that day but we did decide that a close reading of “The New Jim Crow” must be followed by an educational program on the basics of our existing criminal justice system and the promise offered by Restorative Justice.

We designed a ten hour course to be taught on Mondays at First Unitarian and on Thursdays at Bethel AME, a nearby African American Church.

I’ll never forget that first Monday evening. Twelve people had registered. When we arrived to set up we were told that we should plan on twenty. By seven o’clock forty-five people had arrived.

In planning the course we decided at the outset to use the Circle process. And so it was on that Monday evening that nearly fifty of us sat in a Circle for three hours, sharing personal stories of justice and injustice, guided by the use of a talking piece and by the values of honesty and respect. There isn’t time to share with you all that was said that evening but I can share the opening reflection that moved us into that sacred space:

Something is wrong with our ideas about criminal justice.

For one brief moment a victim and an offender confront each other.

Crime establishes a relationship in which one wounds another. But we seldom deal with the wound.

We prosecute offenders when we catch them. And we sometimes send them to prison, not necessarily for the injury done to the victims, but because they broke the law.

So now we have two wounds, and no healing.

The wounds multiply. Friends and neighbors of the victim, concerned for their own safety, start taking greater precautions.

Fear is also a wound. The families of prisoners, unable to deal with the separation and stigma, begin to draw apart. Another wound.

The victims who are recovering and the prisoners who are being released discover that the community cannot accept them as victims or ex-prisoners, and they conceal that part of themselves. More wounds.

We must hold offenders accountable. They have broken the law; they have hurt others. If we do not insist that those who commit crimes be held responsible for their actions, we begin a slide into anarchy.

But the offender can be held responsible in many ways. It is in our best interest to find those ways that heal wounds, not create new ones.

That is the vision of restorative justice. It is victim-centered in that it focuses on the people who have been harmed. It is participatory in that it involves those directly affected by crime: the victim, the offender, their families and representatives of the community.

It is a process that begins with listening to the victim, community and offender. It reinforces their common values. It assumes that with crime comes accountability. It responds to crime by efforts to make things right.

In the early ’90s, when I was first getting my feet wet with Restorative Justice, I would frequently telephone crime victims. The reason was to offer victims the opportunity to meet with offenders in what we then called “victim-offender mediation.” But before I would ask if they were interested, I would let them talk. I would encourage them to tell their stories of victimization, the when and the how of the offense, and the journeys they had traveled since the day their lives were changed.

I would then ask, “What should justice look like?” Most often, my question was greeted with silence. It seemed that an inquiry into justice, rather than a discussion about punishment, created a dilemma for victims. But a justice inquiry was exactly what was needed to open the door to a conversation about Restorative Justice and, ultimately, how a victim’s real needs might be met by participating in a restorative process.

As time went on, and as the Polk County Restorative Justice Center developed the capacity to offer victim-offender mediation to a greater number of victims and offenders, staff was trained in the language of restorative justice. They became skilled in asking the questions necessary to allow victims to articulate how they had been harmed, what their needs were, and how those needs could be met. The result was that an increasing number of victims in our community experienced real justice through dialoguing with those who had hurt them. Offenders were also healed when given the opportunity to answer victims’ questions, tell their own stories, and express remorse for their actions.

Two years ago this month I set out on the first of what I came to call “Justice Diary” road trips. The question that drove me was, “What does justice look like to the millions of people in this country who, in one way or another, encounter our criminal justice system.” I posted blogs about my experiences and encounters. Many of the entries offered answers to that question. But the more I traveled and the more I reflected, the more I returned to that earlier question, “What should justice look like?” And its companion question, “How do we get there?”

“What does justice look like now?” is being written and talked about – in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Des Moines Register, on CNN and the Daily Show, and on street corners and in coffee shops everywhere.

That question can no longer be ignored, and the answers are forthcoming. We are learning all too much about police brutality, dishonest prosecutors, indifferent judges, life crippling criminal sanctions, and the cruel punishment that goes on behind the walls of many of our jails and prisons.

The question of “what justice looks like now” must continue to be asked. We have to know the truth. But the truth isn’t enough. We have to go further. We have to discern the true nature of justice and then begin the long, slow journey of constructing a justice system, and a just society, that looks at wrongdoing through a restorative lens rather than a punishment lens.

I have reason for optimism. Just recently, twenty Drake University students in Des Moines went through Court Watching training as a requirement for their honors class in Restorative Justice. The students’ awareness about the justice system, and how individuals are treated within it, increased dramatically between the time they were trained in September and the time they reported on their experiences in early December. To date over a hundred students, retirees and others have been trained and have observed juvenile and criminal court proceedings and have reported on their experiences.

Trainings have also been held over the past two years for volunteers concerned about the school to prison pipeline. They believe that by “getting upstream” and serving as peacemakers within schools that the number of suspensions and arrests can be dramatically decreased. And they believe that by serving as third party neutrals they can increase the chances that our children will complete their education. As a result of their efforts, the “Let’s Talk” program was created and volunteer mediators now serve in six middle schools in Des Moines. It is expected that the program will expand to local high schools in the near future.

A racial profiling project created eighteen months ago in Des Moines is continuing. Trained volunteers are now interviewing victims of racial profiling at African American barbershops. There is healing in the telling of their stories and, hopefully, systemic change will result. The project now has the attention of the Des Moines Police Department, resulting in the creation of a racial profiling task force. In recent weeks the police have agreed to work with organizers to create a “second chance” mediation program to keep juveniles out of the formal system. The police have also agreed to participate in a series of community justice circles, in which street officers sit with youth of color to share experiences and concerns. The first Justice Circle was held two weeks ago at the Corinthian Baptist Church. Five officers met in a Circle with black ministers and black teen agers. Each participant talked about respect, what if feels like, and what it feels like to be disrespected. They talked about the need for a culture shift from disrespect to respect. All the while their conversation was guided gently with a talking piece.

I have reason for optimism because of what is happening here at First Parish. The Portland Center for Restorative Justice, led by Elizabeth Chapman, is thriving. The Center has trained a committed group of volunteers to facilitate victim-offender dialogues. In recent months Restorative Justice trainings have been held at the Somerset County Jail and at the Windham Correctional Facility. Volunteers from the Center have worked with at-risk youth at Gorham High School using the Circle process. The Center is beginning to receive referrals from the Juvenile Justice System. A four-part “Introduction to Peacemaking Circles” is being offered with the first Circle being held after this service. And plans are underway to hold a second “Peacemaking Circle” series on Monday evenings that will explore topics of interest to the congregation such as Dealing with Loss, Understanding Trauma, Bridging the Race Divide, Bridging the Privilege – Poverty Divide, and Bridging the Parent – Child Divide.

It has taken decades for our criminal justice system to get to where it is today—broken and in need of significant repair. The community – all of us – must share in the responsibility for allowing a system to continue that, all too often, is a destructive machine. We have left the system alone, and we are now paying the price. If we chose to do nothing, the brokenness will continue, resulting in broken lives and broken communities. However, if we take notice, become educated, join with others in demanding justice, there is hope. It’s a significant challenge and a difficult process.

We have to get our hands dirty. We need more sermons and letters to our newspapers. We need an army of mediators and Circle Keepers. We need citizens to observe how justice looks to the poor and people of color in our courthouses. We need local justice centers to push back. We must take an interest and get involved in how we recruit and train police officers, prosecutors and judges. We must become advocates for healthy justice just as we have become advocates for our own medical care.

It’s a daunting task, but the alternative is a future that we do not want for our children or our grandchildren.

But perhaps, if we are to have a say in ‘What Justice Looks Like” in our communities, we must first heal ourselves. We must gather together, in our homes and in our churches, around tables and in Circles. We must learn to better listen, and we must learn to do so without passing judgment.

I have a friend by the name of Kay Pranis. She teaches the art of facilitating Peacemaking Circles to willing learners throughout North and South America. I had been doing a form of the Circle process in schools for several years but it wasn’t until I took Kay’s training that I really began to get it.

When you train with Kay you go on a journey. But like a Circle, the journey is not a linear one. There’s a meander to it, with resting places along the way. There is a simplicity to it as well, at least on the surface. But internally, within the process and within each participant as the training moves on, there is a wisdom that transcends logic, at least western logic. There is an “aha moment” once you learn that the Peacemaking Circle practice draws on Native American traditions and the use of the talking piece.

There is a Navajo saying that “if someone does wrong there is something out of balance in the community.” Kay Pranis says that when the community meets with an offender in a Circle “we need the person for whom the Circle is formed just as much as that person needs us,” and when meeting in a Circle “there is always another chance to do right, to make amends.”

Peter Block teaches that the conventional thinking about societal transformation is that the focus should be on larger systems, better leaders, clearer goals, and more controls. But, Peter says, we must move beyond this conventional thinking and come to an understanding that “transformation occurs when we focus on the structure of how we gather and the context in which the gatherings take place; when we work hard on getting the questions right.”

Kay Pranis says much the same thing but less in the language of the sociologist and more in the way of the gentle healer.

When Kay opens a Circle, she often shares with those around her this simple poem by
Rolf Jacobsen:

“All people are children when they sleep.
There’s no war in them then.
They open their hands and breathe in that quiet rhythm heaven has given them….
If only we could speak to one another then,
when our hearts are half-open flowers.
Words like golden bees would drift in.”