New Gloucester, Maine
Eight of us met last evening in an upstairs room at First Parish Church. It was the third such meeting in a month. The Director of the Portland Center for Restorative Justice and I engaged the six “newcomers” in a lengthy role play. Each volunteer had a part – as the adult victim of a burglary, the teenage offender, or as the mediator. Lecture all you want, talk about philosophy and principles, but it takes role playing to get people to a point where they actually feel the process. I’m always fascinated by the transition from problem solver and fixer to listener and mediator. A few take to it quickly. For many it is a struggle. And for some, try as they might, it never happens. Fortunately, the Restorative Justice movement requires all kinds and there is work for everyone no matter their skills, interests or aptitude.
One of the “naturals” arrived a little late. During a break she apologized. She had been at her son’s baseball game. I asked how it went. She said he is a senior and he had a hit, his first in four years. After the game he was ecstatic and declared that by the end of the season he would be hitting home runs. Then she told me that despite his modest success, he plays for the love of the game.
I’m reminded of a case I prosecuted a few years ago. It involved another high school senior. School had let out and on his walk home he was jumped. Three boys took him to the ground. He was hit and kicked and somewhere in the struggle a knife came out. A single thrust lacerated his spleen and he was left in a pool of blood. An elderly woman walking her dog saw everything and called the police. An eight hour surgery followed. The parents of the boy were told afterward that the width of a quarter was the difference between life and death.
It didn’t take long for the three boys to be identified, arrested and charged. Kids talk. All three were nearly sixteen. Had they been a few months older they would have been treated immediately as adults. Even at fifteen that was still a possibility as the juvenile court judge had the authority to give up his jurisdiction and turn the boys over to the adult system. If convicted, a lengthy prison sentence would follow. Early on in the case, that is what the parents of the injured boy wanted.
They had nearly lost their son and, as punishment, they wanted the perpetrators to lose their youth. But an attorney for one of the boys called to see if there might be a different way to hold the boys accountable. The attorney was a long time advocate for juveniles caught up in the system. As an attorney he had seen on many occasions how Restorative Justice could help make sense out of a senseless act.
We talked at length about the need for the victim and his parents to be included in the discussions. Meetings were held and the pros and cons were explored. The parents finally agreed that they and their son needed to meet the three boys and tell them how their lives had been changed by their acts of brutality.
I will never forget that evening when everyone came together. The parents were nervous as was their son. The three boys feared for their own lives. One of our best mediators had been called in to facilitate the dialogue. He was skilled in managing the complexities of anger, fear and shame. The boy’s mother spoke first and then his father. They told of receiving the call, of rushing to the hospital, of waiting helplessly throughout the night. They described the tense days that followed when survival was not assured. And they told of their concern for their other son, the identical twin, and how they kept both boys home for fear of retaliation.
The young offenders sat motionless throughout. Not one of them appeared moved by what had been said. And then the young victim spoke. He told of his love for baseball. How every year he looked forward to the coming of spring. How this was to be his last season and having grown three inches and twenty pounds over the winter he hoped to hit his first home run. And then he described what it was like to sit on the bench the entire season, keeping score while his teammates went on to win the championship. He looked at the boys across from him. He started to cry when he told them what it was like to have something so precious as baseball stolen from him.
The three started to cry as well. Nothing was said for several minutes. And then the boy looked at the three again and told them he forgave them.
It is a challenge sometimes to explain to the uninitiated what Restorative Justice offers that our retributive system can’t. Like love and compassion, it must be experienced.
– Fred Van Liew