Once upon a time, when reading letters from incarcerated people was my job, I got a letter from a man I’ll call John Doe. John was not actually a D.C. prisoner — he was in federal prison — but he had somehow found the address of D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project and decided to send us a letter. The envelope was surprisingly thick, far thicker than any other I had received there. Despite that, I was still unprepared for what I found inside: multiple pages of careful cursive explaining just exactly how he had raped and brutally beaten a relative of his. I can still remember some of the details, though, thankfully, most have faded with time. Because the organization dealt solely with civil issues related to incarceration, we explicitly instructed people not to share details of their criminal cases with us. As far as I remember, this was the one and only time while working there that anyone ever specifically told me about their crime. It was certainly the only time anyone ever told me about it in such excruciating detail.
My first response was nausea. Next came anger and disgust. The fact that alongside the horrible confession was an intense outpouring of remorse didn’t seem to make a difference. My job was to write John a cordial letter letting him know that our mission was only to serve D.C. code offenders, and wishing him luck. But I didn’t want to do that. I did not want to give the time of day to someone who had done something so horrifying and despicable. For quite a while I sat at my desk, thinking, I can’t do this. I can’t help this man. Wouldn’t sending him my best wishes be the same thing as violating his victim, his RELATIVE all over again? And if I can’t help him, then how can I help all the others, people who might be hiding these same dark secrets?
I put John’s letter aside. I had inherited an enormous stack of letters (a few hundred at least) upon starting my work at the Prisoners’ Project. It had been months since the last intern had been up-to-date with all the incoming mail, and though they specifically told me that I need not get through them all, I had immediately resolved to respond to every single letter. These were real people, after all, being assaulted in their cells at night, deprived of medical care they were constitutionally guaranteed, or just seeking an affirmation that someone, anyone cared. No one else knew of this anal-retentive vow of mine; I knew it would be easy to just slip that letter under the pile and let it become the Fall intern’s responsibility. But this was a crossroads — I knew it even then — the first of many I would face working in the justice system. And if you’re an insomniac prone to replay all your daily decisions, you can’t just walk away from a crossroads, hoping the next intern will have the courage to face it. But it was tough. I had to decide that, even with the horrific details running through my mind, John Doe was still a human being worthy of my good will and energy, and not just an animal — or worse than an animal — that had done this cruel thing to someone he should have protected. It took me a few contemplative weeks, but I finally typed him a letter.
Following this decision point, I was ever more certain that criminal justice was my life’s work. My initial plan was to go to law school, either to continue working as an advocate for the humane treatment of incarcerated individuals or to go into restorative justice. Restorative justice, simply put, is an approach to criminal justice that focuses on repairing the harm done by an offender, as assessed by the victims, the offender, and the community — not solely the state. I shared this quote once before about one of the things that, in my view, is critically wrong with our “justice” system, but it is so apt:
As currently practiced, incarceration not only provides offenders with an excuse for not contributing to the welfare of their families and communities, but it practically enforces their noncontribution. Indeed, if anything, the sentencing reforms of the 1980s and 1990s have enforced radical irresponsibility and unaccountability, and it is the families and communities of offenders that are bearing the burden.
Enter restorative justice, wherein the victim, the victim’s family, the offender, the offender’s family, community representatives, and state representatives can dialogue about their perspectives and strive to come to an agreement on what kind of punishment is suitable and how restitution can be made.
Over the years I’ve read a lot of articles and watched many documentaries chronicling restorative-justice community conferences and victim-offender mediation, but this recent New York Times‘ piece by Paul Tullis is as fascinating as any. I highly recommend you read the whole piece to understand the enormity of what occurred in this particular situation, but I want to pull out a few points that are particularly salient to me.
The critical participants in the conference were these:
- Conor McBride, who killed his girlfriend, Ann
- Kate and Andy Grosmaire, parents of the deceased Ann, who felt called to forgive Conor and undertake the restorative-justice process
- Julie and Michael McBride, parents of Conor
- Sujatha Baliga, director of a restorative-justice project
- Jack Campbell, local prosecutor
The conference began with the charges being read, after which the Grosmaires spoke. Andy, Ann’s dad, talked about how she loved kids, and acting, and wanted to open a wildlife refuge. Her mom Kate started at the beginning: how she nursed her as an infant and sought treatment for her “lazy eye” as a child so that eventually she could drive. “It’s another thing that’s lost with her death,” she said, “You worked so hard to send her off into the world — what was the purpose of that now?” As Baliga recounted, Kate “did not spare [Conor] in any way the cost of what he did. There were no kid gloves, none. It was really, really tough. Way tougher than anything a judge could say.”
Way tougher than anything a judge could say. Truth. Just one of the ways that I believe our adversarial legal system undermines accountability is that it often does not create space for victims to express how they have been injured, which can be the very thing that communicates to the offender the full weight of his/her actions. As 19-year-old Conor said, “Hearing the pain in their voices and what my actions had done really opened my eyes to what I’ve caused.” Even the skeptical prosecutor agreed that the Grosmaires comments at the conference were “as traumatic as anything I’ve ever listened to in my life.”
Following the Grosmaires, Conor had to offer a detailed account of what he did, even as Ann’s father further questioned him. Although in some cases offenders must allocute, or publicly confess their crimes, in order to accept a lesser-sentence plea bargain, this is another aspect of accepting full responsibility that can be missing from our legal system. You would think that offenders would not be anxious to walk through the details of their crime, and certainly some are not, but then I always think back to John Doe. John Doe, who wanted so much to be able to apologize to his victim, his family, anyone who would listen; who wanted so much to unburden himself by telling every. single. detail. of his crime and how he loathed himself for it, that he wrote it all out and sent it to a total stranger. It was only later that it hit me how sad it was that I was possibly the only person who knew that much about both his crime and his remorse. While not all victims would want to read that letter from their attacker, many would. We know this both because of growing interest in victim-offender mediation and victim reports that restorative justice programs increase their satisfaction with justice and reduce their post-traumatic stress symptoms. I can only hope and pray that at some point John Doe’s victim learned how much he regretted his appalling actions.
Although forgiveness and reconciliation is not the end goal of restorative justice, it is, in many cases, a byproduct. In the case of Conor McBride, the Grosmaires’ forgiveness had a profound effect: “‘With the Grosmaires’ forgiveness, I could accept the responsibility and not be condemned.’” As author Tullis explains, “Forgiveness doesn’t make him any less guilty, and it doesn’t absolve him of what he did, but in refusing to become Conor’s enemy, the Grosmaires deprived him of a certain kind of refuge — of feeling abandoned and hated — and placed the reckoning for the crime squarely in his hands.” When I worked for the Prisoners’ Project and later during my research, it became sort of cliché to have people tell me some variation of this: I’m not a saint, but I didn’t do this thing that they’ve got me locked up for. And therein lay that “certain kind of refuge,” that feeling that they were hated by society, persecuted by the police, and abandoned by their families, which for many redirected their attention and energy away from grappling with their own responsibility.
Some have accused me of not wanting offenders to get their rightful punishment because of the work I do. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In reality, I envision a system in which offenders can feel the full weight of their responsibility and answer for it, without being ultimately “condemned” such that there is no possibility or motivation for change. Because how can you feel the full weight of something without struggling to lift it? And why would you undertake that struggle at all if the law, society, and every person you meet has already convinced you that the weight of your sins is too great? I believe a more rehabilitative system would serve and protect victims, offenders, and society far better than the unforgiving and dysfunctional behemoth we have created thus far. Underlying my beliefs, of course, is the decision I made at that first crossroads: that no matter what they have done, every human being is worthy of my good will and energy.
As this is just the first part and these issues are endlessly complex, I welcome any thoughts, questions, concerns, or disagreements that will help me as I work on part II. This stuff matters to me, a lot, so if it matters to you too, speak up!
Also, I have to give a shout-out to Neal who looked at a couple of earlier drafts and nitpicked over ever. single. freaking. word. Dude’s a smart guy and a talented writer even if we almost came to blows a time or two.