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Memphis group explores restorative justice at SPI

Posted on June 2nd, 2009

Last November in Memphis, a nine-year-old member of Brenda Alexander’s family was shot in street-fight crossfire. Following a painful struggle with the child’s abdominal injuries, Alexander says, “Praise the Lord, he’s doing very well” – though he and his sister remain afraid to walk home.

Alexander hopes restorative justice can help that boy, his family, the young gunmen, and the entire community – all of whom become, in restorative terms, “stakeholders” in setting things right.

She’s one of four community leaders from Memphis taking a class at EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute on “Restorative Justice: the Promise, the Challenge.” Their classmates have worked in trauma healing on several continents.

SPI class on Restorative Justice at EMU
(L. to r.): Michael O’Neal, Howard Zehr, Frank Black, Johnnie Hatten, Brenda Alexander and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz enjoy some interaction between their SPI class on Restorative Justice. Photo by Jim Bishop

The Memphis activists have been seeking a more effective approach than traditional criminal justice.

While advocating in court for abused children, Frank Black became convinced “The court system is making the mother the victim, or the child the victim, so the court system becomes the offender.”

‘Peace being broken’ in schools

In a school where Johnnie Hatten taught for five previous years, she says, “You’ve got peace being broken every day, among the kids and among the administrative staff.”

As a father, the disproportionate numbers of African Americans in jail worries Michael O’Neal. He and his three colleagues from Memphis’s black community perceive both internal and external causes.

When employed as a pre-trial release counselor, Alexander – whose husband is now minister of a church considering a restorative program – saw a succession of young black men “processed through the system.” Absence of rehabilitation, and frequent imprisonment for nonviolent crimes, made her job “very depressing.” Police often took white youth home when they had gotten in trouble, but locked up blacks in similar circumstances.

Hatten suspects a holdover from slavery both in such disparities and in offenders’ self-destructive behavior.

Repeat offenders sending a message

She sees repeat offenders sending a defiant message to the correction system: “You didn’t ‘correct’ me.” While working in a juvenile facility, she observed residents blaming their trouble on circumstances beyond their control – saying, for example, “If he hadn’t been home, I wouldn’t have shot him.”

Rather than a lenient approach, she adds, “Restorative justice is about taking responsibility.”

The Memphis group cites Jean Handley, of the conflict-resolution team, Turning Point Partners, for her restorative work in Memphis, including with Alexander’s family. Handley, who located there from New Orleans after Katrina destroyed her home, has participated in other workshops organized by EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, which operates SPI.

While criminal justice focuses on punishing the wrongdoer, restorative justice asks “Who has been hurt?” and seeks ways to “heal and put things as right as possible,” wrote class co-facilitator Howard Zehr – a founder of the movement – in his “Little Book of Restorative Justice.”

Perhaps the best-known aspect of restorative justice involves stakeholders – victim, offender, community – gathering to heal and move on from a harmful event, though Zehr notes that is only one aspect.

Hatten recently conducted practice “circles” – exercises in dialogue among youth, seven to 17. Yet she describes the core of restorative justice as deeper: When a hungry person steals, “I must be able to say, ‘Come work for me and earn your food.’”

Co-facilitator Stutzman Amstutz of MCC

In one class session, co-facilitator Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, who works with the Mennonite Central Committee, showed a “20/20″ documentary segment in which a family confronts a troubled teenager, Jesse. He’s served time for badly vandalizing their home two years earlier. Meeting through a facilitator, the family express pain and anger. Jesse apologizes.

Stutzman Amstutz divided the class into three groups to look at that conversation from the perspectives of victim, offender and facilitator.

Some found the anger vented excessive. Alexander, assigned to the victims’ group, said, “I could identify with the victims in every way, except that there was one point where I asked, how long is this kid going to go through this?”

Additional open-ended questions emerged:

Where were Jesse’s accomplices, and his family? Why did the facilitator mostly remain quiet? Why did Jesse wear a t-shirt sporting the message, “BOSS”? (As “armor”?) Why, O’Neal, wondered, hadn’t the facilitator advised him on clothing?

A student from Uganda said the vandalism reminded him of a massacre in which killers scrawled victims’ names on walls in blood. Yet a woman from another part of the world criticized the newscast for conveying “the sacredness of property.”

Was Jesse truly contrite? Stutzman Amstutz responded by questioning whether that was necessary to the process. She recalled occasions when she, as facilitator, had to restrict angry language, and times when victims of theft said, “I never thought you’d pay this back, so thank you.”

“Americans don’t really know how to apologize to each other,” Zehr commented.

Without family or community support, one student reflected, “There could be many Jesses coming up.”

Alexander, however, expressed relief that after meeting Jesse, a child in the victims’ family stopped considering him “a monster.” Restorative justice, she noted, “shines” on all stakeholders.

Chris Edwards is a free-lance writer from Harrisonburg.

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