Category Archives: Daily Post

On Returning from Michigan


I spent this past week in Michigan.

Four cities – Detroit, Ann Arbor, Jackson, Grand Rapids. Sixteen meetings, presentations, mini-workshops, small group discussions; speaking to, with and listening to – law students, public policy students, under grads studying social work and criminal justice, young people drawn to activism, elders engaged in activism, professors, judges, prosecutors, police, defense attorneys, court watchers, parents whose children are imprisoned, the formerly imprisoned now on the streets trying to make sense of it all, mediators, facilitators, the wounded and the healers.

I’ve returned humbled – by the hospitality, the generosity, the kindness, the fervor for justice, the cry for change.

The week was four months in the planning, but I had to do nothing. Teams in each city took care of everything – lodging, meals, transportation, scheduling. I’ve returned amazed at the work done by many hands.

I started the week anxious, excited, questioning. Where would this state be, these Spartans and Wolverines that voted red, less than a week after? For the most part the formal conversations were not about the state of the nation, they were about the need for and the viability of community.

But privately, people spoke of and from their aching hearts. They looked into the future and saw uncertainty, an uncertainty of a different kind than the one they’d felt in the weeks, months, and years before. There was also a sense of urgency. And a recognition that, yes, it really is up to us.

That, as Annie Dillard has written:

“There is no one but us. There is no one to send, not a clean hand or a pure heart on the face of the earth or in the earth—only us… unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and uninvolved. But there is no one but us. There has never been.”

I woke this morning convinced that Restorative Justice is the antidote. It is both the medium and the message. The way we are with people – in mediations, dialogues, conferences, circles – is the way out of this polarized culture we have created for ourselves. I am not alone in this conviction. The pioneers in the movement, now elders, have spread the message to thousands – in this country and abroad. The people I met in Michigan are among these. They know we can’t go on doing business as usual – whether it be the way we do justice or the way we relate to our neighbors. It is now a matter of our survival.

Restorative Justice has been around for over forty years. Community organizing for many years more. They have met each other and joined hands. This new union is the only chance we have.



I met Barry eighteen months ago when I was doing a training at a jail in northern Maine. He was awaiting trial on drug charges. Barry wrote to me a week later. He was intrigued by Restorative Justice. He said that for the first time he was considering the harm he had caused to others in his life.

Barry pled guilty a year ago and was given a seventeen year prison sentence. His 9 year-old daughter now lives with relatives in California.

Barry is serving his time at a penitentiary in West Virginia where he is working with others to bring Restorative Justice within the walls. He sent me an email a couple of days ago:

Good morning Fred,

I have a little story I want to share with you that happened this week. I was walking to records with this older inmate. His name is Chuck. He is 54 years old and has been in prison for 10+ years. He has been helping to design this program and leads several classes here. When I arrived at the records building I asked for and received my computation sheet which is the form that tells you your expected release date. I think it finally hit me, when I saw the date in writing for the first time, that I was not going home for a long time. In fact, not until March 19, 2031. I was in somewhat of a depressed state and looked over at Chuck and said “dam, look at this, 2031”.  He looked over at me and said at least you have a date.

Fred, I felt so embarrassed, complaining about my release date to a man who received life plus 10 years for a nonviolent drug crime – 56 grams of crack cocaine to be precise. Life for an amount of drugs you could fit in your pocket. 

In N.A. class this week we were asked to pick a word for the week. My word was Freedom. The only time I feel free in this place is when I am in a circle in N.A and when I go to church.  I shared the story with members of the group. I said that we take our Freedom for granted when there are many people who will never go home. I asked those that were going home to remember the stories of those who they leave behind. I hope this will act as a deterrent / reminder so that they don’t end up coming back here due a lack of clear forethought.

So my word for the week is Freedom.


What if?


I was in a Circle recently. The conversation was about brokenness. A question was posed: “Can you recall an incident in which a restorative response might have changed your life?”

The talking piece was passed. Heartbreak followed, one after the other. A man, who had spent nearly a decade behind bars, took the stick. He cradled it, clutched it, and then he began. He spoke of his middle class upbringing, his family support, his love for basketball. This strapping young man, all of 6’5”, talked about his dream to play in the NBA and his prowess as a high school player that made it a real possibility. As a junior he began to get looks, serious ones. Colleges wanted him. Colleges with good programs and histories of success. He worked hard over the summer leading to his senior year. He played his best basketball early in his last season. The accolades and the offers came in. And then he tore his ACL. It was interesting what happened next. What he said next, in our Circle. His first words, following his description of the injury were “and my father and I had an argument.” He left it at that except to say that he fled the house in anger and never returned.

His basketball career over, he moved to another school district where he finished his senior year and took whatever jobs he could get. Before the injury, and before the argument, he had never used alcohol, marijuana, or any other substance that might harm his body. That changed. Old friends were left behind. New acquaintances were made. He frequented the bars and freely used the drugs that he had considered poison less than a year before.

Two years into his new life he had an altercation at a favorite drinking hole. It left a bad taste. A couple of weeks later he was sitting on the front stoop of his apartment building. Three men approached. He recognized one of them from the recent altercation. The three confronted him. They took him to the ground. He was in a bad way. At the time he knew of no other response but to pull out a hand gun that he had a permit to carry. The resulting injury was devastating for the young man and for the victim.

He spoke of that moment as if it was yesterday. He spoke of what if. “What if someone could have helped me and my dad have that talk? What if someone had helped us listen to each other? What if my anger had given way to understanding? What if I hadn’t run from my home? I don’t think I would be here today.”



We read poetry this morning. Six men, seated in a circle, each chair with a character of its own. The prison library just around the corner, the fourth floor room was too warm for the box fan to cool. Still, the men chose to turn it to its lowest setting so everyone could be heard. There was an intimacy that seemed to transport us far from the general population. The only reminder of their imprisonment was the shelves of legal books that held out hope to a few for escape or an early release.

The Rilke poem was their favorite – “You See, I Want a Lot”. I read it first and then Billy offered to read it a second time. Billy, who took up with gypsies at an early age and learned the art of “over charging” well enough to make a living at it. Billy, whose soft voice slides over each word, serving his third or fourth prison sentence with charges still pending in Massachusetts.

“You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything:
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall and the shivering blaze of every step up.
So many live on and want nothing,
and are raised to the rank of prince
by the slippery ease of their light judgments.
But what you love to see are faces
that do work and feel thirst.
You love most of all
those who need you
as they need a crowbar or a hoe.
You have not grown old,
and it is not too late
to dive into your increasing depths
where life calmly gives out its own secret.”

Each of the men discovered a phrase or a sentence to hold on to. Pat, twenty-two years into a murder sentence, spoke of the rise of the working class, informed by years of reading works on social movements and revolutions. Brandon, whose single shot in self defense has left him bitter toward a justice system that failed him, and who wants only to know that he’s loved. Bill, sixty-five and a world class athlete in another life, hopes that it’s true that he’s not grown too old, that it’s not too late.

Poetry is different in prison. At least with these men. It is not a school exercise nor is it a night time ritual just before the light is turned out. For these men it is a spark, a fire, a lifeline to that part of themselves that is nearly impossible to access any other way.

Change Agents


I’m teaching another class at the prison in Windham. Sort of. What I mean is that when you teach in a correctional setting you are as much student as instructor. Only minutes into a first meeting you are reminded, or realize if it’s your first time, that these men are hungry. They are hungry for ideas, for stimulation, for conversation. They are hungry to share what they have read, what they have learned, and what they know. They are hungry to share themselves. Sitting with them, in a circle, you become one of them, to the extent that’s possible as an outsider. There is no division between the learned and the learner. You are both. They are both.

My first class at Windham was this spring. A five week course on Restorative Justice. Our basic text was Howard Zehr’s “The Little Book of Restorative Justice”. It’s a perfect introduction. The men ate it up. Not a one of them had heard of Restorative Justice before the class and the book. But they got it. Immediately. It was like watching parched sojourners suddenly gifted with a bottomless water glass. We listened to TED talks on justice, Youtube recordings on Restorative Justice, and we picked Howard’s book apart which, by the way, is now available in a revised edition on Amazon. You can also get the 25th Anniversary edition of Howard’s “Changing Lens” there too. And if you have some spare change, you can get my new book there as well. I promise, that’s the extent of my self promotion.

The class I’m teaching now is a little different. We are building on the first one and we are building on the hunger. The administration has been kind enough to give us two hour and a half sessions a week. We have a rule that, because of the extra time, there is no talking in the morning session about their cases, prison life, or the system. The morning is for ideas. Yesterday we listened to the early chapters of the Tao Te Ching, read from Eric Fromm’s “Credo”, and listened to a lecture by Alan Watts on being your own guru. We talked about what it might take to develop credibility when attempting to air grievances. We discussed intellectual competence and the careful measuring of words. And we talked about the importance of listening. It helps that we use a talking piece. We also meditate. Ten minutes at the beginning of each class and five at the end. They are hungry for that too. Except for one of the men, a Yale graduate, the class is their first taste of a contemplative practice.

In the afternoon class we focus our attention on justice. We are reading from Marc Mauer’s “Race to Incarcerate”. And we are again listening to TED talks. Yesterday was Bryan Stevenson’s “We need to talk about an injustice.” It’s obvious that it’s a great comfort to these men that there are those on the outside who are advocating for a better system. As we move forward, we will begin to brainstorm on how Restorative Justice might spread to the larger prison population.

This small group of men at the Windham prison see themselves as pioneers. They want to be change agents.

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.”

Grandma’s Story


Des Moines, Iowa

It’s Mother’s Day. What they say is true. The loss is felt long after the burial. My mother died a week before Christmas seven years ago. Time doesn’t make it easier. I’ve been thinking of my mother’s story lately while considering a different approach to the “Justice Diary”.

A year ago, with one class left in my graduate studies at Eastern Mennonite University, I made a promise to Howard Zehr that I would blog for a year. In exchange, he said I would earn three hours of credit. It sounded like a good deal and I have to say I’ve enjoyed it for the most part. Howard told me last week that, as far as he’s concerned, I’ve blogged enough. And the folks at EMU say I get to graduate. But to some extent I’ve not done what I set out to do.

I was talking recently with a friend, a fellow introvert. We were discussing why it is that introverts frequently have a need to write. We considered various reasons. Then it struck me. We introverts write to finish our sentences. Extroverts, wonderful people that they are, wouldn’t understand this. They rarely have trouble getting in the last word. But as an introvert, I can attest to the innumerable times when I didn’t start a sentence knowing there was little chance of a successful conclusion.

I think that’s why what I’d hoped to do with blogging didn’t happen. What I wanted to do was to explore justice through the stories of others. I wanted to learn about justice as James Baldwin exhorted in “No Name In The Street”:

“If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those who need the law’s protection most — and listens to their testimony. ”

I haven’t done that, I suppose, because I had some things to say. I had some sentences I needed to finish. But I’m in recovery now and ready to learn from others. I’m not sure what it will look like. I need to take a few weeks off to think about it. I know there are questions I want to ask of the unprotected. I know it’s their testimony that is more important than mine.

In the meantime, I’ll catch up on some reading. I’ll mow the lawn and take my grandson on bike rides. And I’ll give serious thought to those who need the law’s protection most.

With Mother’s Day nearly over, I’m still thinking of my own mother’s story. She knew some things about justice and injustice, quite a bit actually. At her funeral service I attempted to tell her story for the benefit of her grandchildren. What I shared with them is some of what they now know as “Grandma’s Story”:

“It’s customary at services like these for people to pay tribute to a loved one. My mom wasn’t one for tributes. She thought they were boring and she would have said she didn’t deserve one. Instead, I think my mom would have wanted someone to tell her story. She would have wanted those she cared about to understand her for her accomplishments and her failures. She would have wanted her story told to her grandchildren who she loved more than anything in the world.

To the extent anyone can tell another’s story, I want to do that for my mother’s grandchildren so when they are asked someday by their children what their grandmother was like, they will have something to add to what they already know.

So this story is for you, her twenty grandchildren.

More than anything, your grandma was a complicated woman. Her mother and her father studied at Iowa State University. Her father was an electrical engineer and her mother an accountant. Her grandfather, the Dutch one, was a lawyer and for a while was the City Attorney for Des Moines. Her German grandfather helped run the family brewery in Dubuque. Your grandma also had a sister, the obedient one.

Your grandma grew up in a home where there were a lot of rules and very little love. Because of that she became a rebel of sorts. Your grandma was also very smart, smart enough to skip two grades at Visitation Elementary School.

When it came time to attend high school she was offered a full scholarship to the Academy, the all girls Catholic High School on the other side of town. She refused to go. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go to a school with no boys. She went to East High School instead and, by all accounts, was the one you’d want to have at your party. She was funny, witty, and knew everyone. Your grandma was also a good athlete and loved to swim. She won a lot of races until she was stricken with polio.

When it came time to go to college your grandma again was offered scholarships. But she refused to go. She said she was going to marry her high school sweetheart, the wrestling star who was also the life of the party. Your grandma did what she said she would do, perhaps out of love and perhaps to spite her parents.

Like most girls, your grandma wasn’t ready to be married at eighteen. She also wasn’t ready to be a mom at nineteen, at twenty-one, at twenty-three, at twenty-five, and at twenty-eight. She was a strong woman, but not strong enough to be the mother of five children at such a young age. Your grandma had been strong enough to overcome the disease of polio. She was not strong enough to overcome another disease, depression, which crippled her more than polio ever did. And when she divorced your grandpa at the age of thirty, the disease paralyzed her.

Your grandma was smart, but she didn’t have the skills to take care of herself and her five children. She had never known poverty but found herself having to maneuver the welfare system, waiting for the monthly check, waiting for the food stamps to come, waiting in long lines to get government peanut butter and cheese, waiting to see if she could get help so she and her kids wouldn’t get evicted. Ultimately, your grandma’s disease left her unable to parent.

When the authorities came and took her five children away she had to be taken away too. At that time, the disease of depression was not well understood. People thought the best way to fix your grandma was with hospitals and electrical shock treatments. They were wrong. The best way would have been to give her the love and support she needed so badly. That never happened and your grandma never got her children back – except one.

For a long time, your grandma was bitter at the system that never came to her aid. But she was smart and she was also courageous. She woke up one day and said she was going to fix herself. She started taking college classes while working as a store clerk. She quit her job when Judge Harrison hired her to work at the county substance abuse center. It turns out your grandma had a gift for helping people who had been laid low by life. It also turned out that your grandma’s bitterness against a system that never came to her aid blossomed into a compassion for those caught up in that same system.

Your grandma’s compassion enabled her to get up in the middle of many nights when the calls would come from the alcoholic or the heroin addict or the crack head. She would always respond. It didn’t take long for the authorities to say your grandma should be in charge of the county programs for helping people with substance abuse problems. She was the best person for the job and did it well.

Then the authorities called. They said she was the best person to run the county’s General Relief Program – the program that helped moms and kids who were getting evicted, who had run out of food stamps, or who were having their electricity turned off. Your grandma took that job and helped a lot of people there too.

Your grandma wasn’t perfect. She sometimes got in trouble for breaking the rules. She couldn’t understand why there would be a rule that said a mom couldn’t get help just because she had gotten help nine months before. But they couldn’t fire your grandma because she helped too many people, and she was the best person for the job.

But the authorities called your grandma again. They said she was the best person to run the county programs that helped old people. She didn’t want to stop helping moms and families but she decided to take the new job – perhaps she was thinking of the day when she would be old.

By now, you know your grandma’s story. She helped a lot of old people. She helped get them meals when they couldn’t get out of the house. She got them fans when the temperature in their apartments was ninety-five degrees. She helped them get money for rent when the landlords wanted to evict them. And when she had to she broke the rules.

When I was going through some of your grandma’s papers yesterday, I found a job evaluation her boss had written when she was running the elderly programs. The evaluation said your grandma was very good at all she did. It ended with the statement “if one can tolerate individuality in an employee, then Mary is an asset.”

Your grandma had to stop working just before she turned sixty. Her mind was still sharp but her health was poor – and she was still haunted by depression. Without the work that meant so much to her she was oftentimes hard to deal with. But she always loved her grandchildren.

As you know, two years ago we took your grandma to Kavanagh House. They said she had two weeks to live. She had ideas of her own. Eight months later they said she had to leave because she hadn’t died soon enough. With the help of Hospice nurses, she stayed with us for the next six months. It was oftentimes challenging but also a blessing. We finally had to put your grandma in a nursing home because the Hospice nurses said they couldn’t come any more. They said your grandma wasn’t going to die anytime soon.

We thought she wouldn’t last long in the nursing home but we were wrong. She met Willa there. Willa was your grandma’s roommate. She was ninety-nine years old, the daughter of a slave, and the loving mother your grandma never had. There were times when I would visit your grandma late at night. She and Willa would be holding hands. Your grandma was oftentimes in a lot of pain and Willa would get out of bed to comfort her.

Many people cared for your grandma, loving her each in their own way. But Willa was the first person in your grandma’s life that loved her unconditionally. Willa brought out the best in her. The last few months of your grandma’s life were times of both pain and peace. Near the end, she shared her love unconditionally with those around her.

When your grandma was moved to a second nursing home it broke her heart to be separated from Willa. But she didn’t give in. A week ago yesterday she was taken by ambulance to the hospital in Des Moines. It looked like she didn’t have long to live. When she was lying on the gurney in the emergency room she pulled me close and said: “I could have died tonight but I decided not to, is that alright?” Your grandma didn’t die that night and they took her back to the nursing home.

Two days later we took her a small Christmas tree. When she saw us she was an expression of pure joy. Shortly after that she went to sleep and never woke up.

Your grandma’s story is one of promise, rebellion, despair, courage, accomplishment, suffering and, ultimately, redemption. But your grandma was more than her story. As I said earlier, your grandma was a complicated woman.

She loved politics and she loved the Democratic Party, with all of its faults. Your grandma was always asking about the courthouse and what boneheaded thing the Board of Supervisors had done. She loved John Kennedy and hated Richard Nixon. She loved Bill Clinton and hated George Bush, both of them. Your grandma loved ideas, controversy, and debate and she loved Larry King.

Your grandma loved to travel when she finally had the resources to do so. But she didn’t go to Paris and Rome like others. Instead, she went to Russia – four times. She loved to talk to people there about their struggles. Your grandma hated the Nazis and was fascinated by the Holocaust. The last trip she took was to Poland – she had to visit Auschwitz.

And finally, your grandma loved her church, particularly Jesus’ mother – and all the Mary’s of the New Testament.

If your grandma were here today, she would tell you to engage in the struggles of the world and debate the burning issues of our time. She would tell you to never stop learning. She would tell you to lift up those who have fallen and always be kind to strangers. She would tell you to hug those who are close to you and never forget to tell them you love them. And finally, she would tell you to never, never become a Republican.

I want to finish by reading you something from one of your grandma’s books. As you know, she was not sentimental. Her books were about politics, travel, and the struggles of others.

Of all of her books, she only had one book of poetry, aptly titled: “Risking Everything”.

I want to read the first poem, one she had dog-eared. It’s titled: “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver.

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes like the measles-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea, and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

Justice Is Local


Portland, Maine

It’s interesting to think of justice as local, which it is and must be. But it’s easy to forget. We’re more likely to think of justice as “top down” with Congress, the Supreme Court, state legislatures and state courts grabbing the headlines. Each has a role, making the rules and interpreting them. Without them there would be no “Rule of Law”. Without the Rule of Law there would be chaos. Civilization as we know it would cease to exist. One need only travel to any number of foreign countries to experience this.

But laws do not necessarily equal justice, unless justice is defined narrowly as the consequence imposed as the result of a violation.

There are times when temperance is required. Times when the laws applied to a particular situation don’t really fit. Times when the consequences outweigh the seriousness of the conduct.

Last week I listened to a lawyer with fifty years of practice under his belt speak about the need for a re-writing of the Maine criminal code. He said it was last done in the ’70’s and it’s time again. Many of the laws on the books are antiquated and irrelevant. Times change and our laws need to change with them.

Just last night I was at a pizza joint / pub in downtown Portland. A group of five guys were making great music with their fiddles and acoustic guitars. During a break I spoke with the lead, a man in his sixties who makes violins during the day. He told me it’s against the law in Maine to have two stages with live music within a hundred feet of one another. He pointed across the street at a bar that also hosts musicians. Because the two establishments are less than a hundred feet away they can’t have music playing at the same time. Then he told me there’s another silly law which says a musician can’t stand up and have a beer in his hand. But if he sits down that’s ok. He said recently a local Cajun band was playing at the same pub and near the front window which looked out on the street. A police officer saw one of the band members standing up and with a drink in his hand. The band lost its gig and the proprietor was fined a thousand dollars.

These examples might seem petty but the point is that even with the best of laws, there must be temperance, there must be the exercise of reasonable discretion.

This is particularly true when it comes to kids. A sixteen year old may be as tall as an adult, may weigh as much or more, but he doesn’t have the brain of an adult. The neuroscientists are teaching us this. The risks the teenager takes, the decisions he makes to do or not do something, are not made with the aid of a mature brain. Compound that with what we know about early childhood trauma and we find ourselves with a canon of laws and a justice system not ideally suited to respond to the misbehavior of our youth.

That is why there must be the exercise of reasonable discretion. Sometimes law enforcement does it and sometimes it does not. The same is true of juvenile corrections officers and juvenile prosecutors. It’s easy to get frustrated with and angry at kids who commit offenses that, if they were eighteen, would be considered crimes. But we can’t ignore the science and we must be cognizant of the unintended consequences that can result when our schools and our justice systems label youth because of misbehavior.

Here in Maine there is something to be encouraged about. Communities are taking greater notice of kids caught up in our systems. Individuals are coming together to address the inequities and unfavorable outcomes. One thing being considered is the use of community review boards. Once in place, police officers will have the discretion to refer a teenager to a board of community members and professionals rather than to the formal system. The teenager, his or her parents, and members of the board will meet collaboratively, placing equal emphasis on the needs of the youth and the community’s need for accountability.

Justice is local. And because it’s local it’s best served when the community realizes it has a stake in its administration and in its outcomes. This is particularly true when the lives of our kids are at stake.

– Fred Van Liew

The Circle Process In The Service Of Truth


New Gloucester, Maine

My son is a young trial attorney. He’s a natural. To further his education, I recently gave him my well-worn copy of Francis Wellman’s “The Art of Cross-Examination”. It’s a classic and was recommended by my trial advocacy professor when I was in law school. Wellman cites numerous examples from famous and not so famous trials, giving credence to John Henry Wigmore’s assertion that “Cross examination is the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.”

As a young criminal defense attorney I witnessed its power. My client, an eighteen year old boy, was charged with first degree murder in the death of his girl friend. He swore it was an accident following a night of drinking at the neighborhood bar. The prosecutor saw it otherwise and was seeking life in prison without parole. The state’s key witness was the coroner who testified on direct examination that an intentional blow caused the girl’s death. I was convinced the coroner had botched the autopsy but he stuck to his opinion. It was only through cross examination that the truth came out. The jury returned a verdict of involuntary manslaughter and the young man was given a five year sentence.

Trial by jury is a foundation of our democracy. It is designed to reveal the truth to a panel of the defendant’s peers. But it’s not perfect. Over reaching prosecutors or incompetent defense attorneys can lead to a result that fails to reflect what actually happened. Complicit oftentimes is cross examination, that great engine of truth, which can be lethal when employed by the experienced, “win at all cost” lawyer or by his counterpart, the novice. Even when the playing field is level, the “real truth” may never come out.

I was thinking of this during a phone conversation this morning with Frank Cordaro. Frank, a former priest, founded the Des Moines Catholic Worker Community in the late ’70’s and has seen more than his share of trials. For more than thirty years he has exercised his conscience and been charged on numerous occasions with criminal offenses arising out of his protest activities. Like many of this country’s great dissenters, Frank has served jail and prison time in cells throughout the country.

Unlike others who break the law, dissenters want to get caught. They stage their actions before reporters and cameras, hoping the brief news coverage will somehow influence public opinion.

I once prosecuted Frank. He and other Catholic Worker protestors had crossed the line at the Iowa Air National Guard which deployed fighter jets to the mideast. Twenty were arrested but by the day of trial all had entered guilty pleas but one. Michael would tell the story of the international law violations that occurred as the result of the “no-fly zone operations” over Iraq conducted by our government.

The jury trial lasted five days. Constitutional law experts testified as well as National Guard attorneys and other personnel. The jury returned a verdict of trespass and the judge imposed a small fine. A judge, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, expert witnesses, a court reporter, a court attendant, and six jurors had been employed in order to obtain the result.

This past St. Patrick’s Day another Catholic Worker action was held at the Air National Guard, now a drone site. Seven were arrested and trial is set for late June. I’ve been asked to assist in the defense. A few weeks ago Frank began to consider another way for the truth to be told. He called this morning to continue the conversation. He wondered about mediation. I said I didn’t think there was anything to mediate and that a compromise wasn’t possible. We then talked about the use of a Peacemaking Circle. What if the seven defendants and an equal number of guard personnel sat in a Circle with a Circle Keeper present to facilitate the conversation? And what if, like a trial, the process was open to the public? Anyone could attend, sit outside the Circle, and listen to everything that was said.

There would be truth telling – by the defendant and by the National Guard. There would be no attempt to reach consensus. It wouldn’t be possible. The protestors abhor the use of drones. The Guard personnel, while perhaps sympathetic to the protestors, have chosen to join the Guard and have a job to do.

Each side has a truth. Each side is unwavering. But unlike cross examination, and its potential for abuse, the Circle process is a sacred one and honors each person’s truth no matter the chasm between.

And wouldn’t a great service be rendered by the sharing of these truths in the presence of the community at large?

– Fred Van Liew

A Fire In The Center


New Gloucester, Maine

I had a dream last night. It was about justice. I’m sure it was prompted by the ACLU of Maine Award Dinner I attended earlier in the evening. There were stories told of justice, the struggle and the fight for it, on the behalf of individuals and of groups. On the drive home I felt proud to be a lawyer.

Anyway, my dream last night was both vivid and formless. I woke from it searching for a metaphor – not for justice as we know it, but for Restorative Justice, that toddler trying so hard to find its legs.

I showered, and as I scrubbed my arms and legs I thought of the elephant and the blind men, and how each believed that what they touched was the whole truth. In the daydream of my shower I saw one man holding tight to the tail. He proclaimed that he had found it, that school conferencing was Restorative Justice and that Bethlehem, PA is the holy city. A second man grabbed a leg, asserting that victim-offender dialogue is Restorative Justice. A third man clutched another leg, shouting out that Youth Court is RJ. Another man said it’s community restorative boards and a fifth said it’s restorative circles. A sixth man, riding on top of the great beast, said that restorative conferencing is what Restorative Justice is all about.

I finished my shower, dried and dressed but wasn’t satisfied. The elephant story was incomplete. It spoke of processes but was lacking in some way.

I remembered the passage from John: “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” Perhaps Restorative Justice is like a house where place is as important as process. In my mind’s eye I could see a mansion, with long hallways and rooms of various sizes and uses throughout. I opened one door after another. There were schools, churches, workplaces, neighborhoods, justice systems, jails and prisons. Each one a place in need of healing and an opportunity for Restorative Justice.

I liked this image but I’m not sure that Jesus had such a dwelling in mind. It’s too western and too segregated. Maybe a Mediterranean house provides a better image, with its doors opening to a common courtyard. Or perhaps better yet is the image of an African or Navajo village with thatched huts and teepees opening to the communal fire. In the village everyone participates in the life of the community, whether to celebrate a wedding, give honor to the passing of an elder, or meet in a circle to weigh the impact of a harm inflicted by one on another.

And then the young Perceval came to mind and the search for the Holy Grail. It could be that the Grail myth is an appropriate metaphor for Restorative Justice, unattainable and yet worth pursuing. The Grail was thought to be a container for what is most precious. For the Celts it was a symbol of plenty and for early Christians it symbolized eternal life. Psychologically it’s a symbol for wholeness never to be completely realized.

A few years ago I took a course on advanced issues in Restorative Justice. There was great discussion about what Restorative Justice is, is not, and what it could be. Near the end of one class Howard Zehr commented that he had long thought of Restorative Justice as a flame or spark, that it informs our work without defining it.

Maybe that’s why the image of an indigenous village resonates – the communal circle around a fire in the center.

– Fred Van Liew