By Trudy Wischemann
Last week’s news had me questioning the definition of justice. There was the news from Texas about policewoman Amber Guyger’s sentence of 10 years in prison for killing the neighbor she mistakenly thought was in her own apartment. But there was also news about “restorative justice” from this year’s MacArthur Fellowship Genius Awards.
The MacArthur grant I heard about on NPR’s All Things Considered was to Sujatha Baliga, director of the Restorative Justice Project in Oakland. “Restorative justice” was defined as a way of approaching a crime with the goal of finding a resolution that centers on healing for everyone involved, including the person who committed the crime. Ms. Baliga said this approach “is a real shift away from punitiveness towards a justice that involves reparation, accountability and healing.” In it, she sees hope that we can have more justice with much less reliance on the courts and prisons.
She became dedicated to developing the approach when she was doing appellate work as a public defender in New York, and was faced with the damage created by the trial system. As an example, she spoke of a young man who’d been convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison for intervening in a domestic violence situation that resulted in one person’s death.
“He really just wanted to apologize. And I had to tell him ‘you can say that to your priest, and you can say it to me. But you can never ever talk about that…we have to just stick with the way the case is unfolding.’ And I saw that the family was just literally begging him to admit that he had done something beyond what was necessary and that he was sorry for taking this person’s life. And I had to advise against that.”
Counter to what we’d think, restorative justice works best with more serious harms, Baliga said. She plans to use the MacArthur grant ($650,000 over five years) for “spreading the good word about restorative justice,” and probing its roots in Mennonite teachings and her own Tibetan culture. After hearing about policewoman Amber Guyger’s trial, it seemed to me that we, as a people, could be well served by Sujatha Baliga’s mission.
That’s what we saw in the forgiveness offered by Brandt Jean, the younger brother of Amber’s victim, Botham Jean. Before I heard his halting voice on the radio Wednesday, I could not imagine what justice could mean in this case. If we had lived in the time of Moses, Amber’s death would have been seen as just compensation for the Jean family’s loss. Now, if she’d been sentenced to 99 years instead of 10, it still would not have compensated the black community for the injustices they have suffered from hundreds of years of slavery and the inequal treatment they have received ever since. In my mind, Amber’s knee-jerk reaction to shoot, unwarranted as it was, came from being a trained officer of our law we think we need to protect us from criminals. In my mind we are all implicated in that accidental, racially-prompted death, and all the police shootings as well. Perhaps each of us should serve some of Amber’s time.
But 18-year-old Brandt Jean saw a better way. He said that he wants the best for her, that he loved her like he would any other person, and that he forgave her. He then sought restorative justice in asking, not for an eye for an eye, but a heart for a heart: he asked her to give her life to Christ as compensation for his loss. Then he asked the court to be allowed to hug her. It’s a start.
And now it’s totally up to Amber whether or not she meets Brandt’s request. But from now on, both sides, freed from unforgiveness, can move forward. And I think that’s restorative, and hopefully healing. Maybe that’s justice.
Trudy Wischemann is a writer who is somewhat familiar with the criminal justice system. You can send her your ideas about justice c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.