This blog post was first published on rjonline.org
Many thoughts run through my mind when I consider the work I have done over many years in the restorative justice field. I often say when I am speaking publicly on the subject that my understanding of it and how I speak about it has changed since the early ‘90s. I think of some seminal moments that have had an effect on my thinking about justice and justice reform. I’ve been lucky enough to have a diverse set of experiences in this field. Perhaps, it’s because I’m drawn to a deeper understanding of the work. I think that is true for many in this field. My experience has not been one-sided. That is I have worked on “both sides of the aisle, ” if you will, working on issues from the victim’s side but also from the offender’s side as well.
I am often asked how I got into prison reform work or justice work. I worked in the health care field in Los Angeles in the late 1980’s where I heard Chuck Colson on the radio. I was drawn to that interview which led me to learn more about Prison Fellowship. During that interview I first heard the phrase “restorative justice”. Colson’s description of it stirred me. I have always been pulled towards any fight for justice and civil rights and often am ready to battle for those who are victims of injustice. My first experience with the prison field was as a volunteer for a Prison Fellowship program which matched you with an inmate to exchange letters as a pen pal. I realized though that my passion and my work experience in public policy and advocacy was better applied by working for PF’s sister group, Justice Fellowship.
Years later I went to work for Justice Fellowship opening its first state office in Sacramento, California. I remember a lunch with a key state victim’s services representative. She was listening to me, along with another colleague, make the case passionately for restorative justice. Some years later I had lunch with that same state official who still worked in the field of victims services. She said to me, “You’ve changed.” I said, “How so?” She explained that I was less focused on the offender and more open to the plight of the victim of crime. And that’s paraphrasing. This lunch and this exchange took place after having directed the first intensive victim offender in-prison program in the U.S., the Sycamore Tree Project, created by Dan Van Ness of PFI. That experience had a huge effect on my thinking.
But this person’s comment made me pause. Was I so different in how I presented restorative justice or had I in the past presented restorative justice in a way that explained the value to the offender but not acknowledging or understanding the value to the victim? One thing was certain; I had learned more about the true impact of crime on victims. But without meeting and knowing victims of violent crime, particularly violent crime, it is hard to truly walk in their shoes. You have to know them. I do not have the time here to tell the stories of some of those victims, but the memories of those exchanges linger and remind me of their unmet needs. Three victims come to mind though without sharing their stories: Roberta Roper, Stephen Watt and Elizabeth Menkin.
Another moment that had an effect on my thinking was during the Sycamore Tree project in Texas. Sycamore Tree is an in-prison program which brings victims and offenders together for 10-12 weeks to discuss issues related to crime and explore restorative justice together. As director of the project I tried to get to know as many participants as possible, victims and offenders alike. One offender was serving time for a long list of white collar crimes. As often was the case, I would have exchanges with the inmates about the program and how they viewed it as they participated in it from week to week. This offender I recall was working through the process of taking responsibility for his crimes but seemed to be holding back. I urged him to consider his own victims and think of what he could do to make things right. Although the project was designed to bring surrogate victims and offenders together (not related cases) it also stimulated the participants to think of their own cases. The program planted the seeds of hope in the hearts of many of the victims and the offenders that maybe some day they could meet with their own offenders or victims. I remember jostling with this offender about what he could do to make things right with his victims. He finally said to me, “Who’s side are you on?” He said that with a grin, as this man was a good natured man. But his question caught me off guard.
I have repeated that question often as I have spoken to diverse audiences since that encounter. Who’s side am I on? For those of us in the restorative justice field who do this work the ideal, I think, is that we are not on any side at all. We stand in the middle of the system urging adoption of restorative justice to benefit both victims, offenders and the communities they live in. We are on the side of justice, as idealistic as that sounds. But it is true. A quiet, and sometimes not so quiet, battle rages in the criminal justice field. That battle, often in the legislative trenches, is between those who do justice reform work. That work is usually fought by organizations or entities representing a particular interest. You are expected, perhaps tacitly, to take sides. Maybe this is analogous to the legal system: you are either representing the defendant or the state. You are either with the victim or you are siding with the offender/the inmate. But can you work to improve and transform the system for both? Yes! And we must work towards that.
One last story, also an experience that occurred during the Sycamore Tree project I got to know a dear woman whose daughter had been viciously murdered by a serial killer. The pain this woman carried in her heart and mind was palpable. Early on she let us know that she was unsure about participating in the program. But she did participate and made it to the end of the project. As director, I had to hear many concerns and sometimes complaints about the project since this was the first pilot tested. Since it was inside a medium security prison the conditions we operated under were restrictive at times, as you would expect. I tried to represent the needs of the victims and listen carefully to their concerns as the project rolled out. I often made their case to others, regardless of the concern: big problems or very small ones. I was told by some that I shouldn’t worry too much about criticism since you could not meet the needs of all victims in such a setting. At the end of the project, this same woman praised the project. But she said to me privately, “Lisa, you will never be a victim’s advocate.” I was astounded by the comment and frankly hurt. But I look back and realize it doesn’t matter. The work is good.
We often cannot be a victim’s advocate or an offender’s advocate, in fact maybe in retrospect that is not the ideal.
These brief experiences perhaps give you a sense of how those of us who work in the restorative justice field are often received. Someone will be displeased if you do not take their side. But the only side you can take in this work is to take no side. Empathy is something we need but also neutrality. What we do desire is that the outcome in any case allows for greater healing in the victim, and yes, in the offender, and accountability in the offender to allow for transformation. When we look at this field from a public policy standpoint, versus a case by case basis, we want the same thing. We want a justice that works, that is fair and balanced, and that restores—as much as possible.