The Case for Restorative Justice
This was a speech that I gave in Chicago in 2014 at a banquet for the Lawndale Christian Legal Center. I was asked to bring the case for Restorative Justice and what is possible if we begin to move away from retributive justice toward restorative justice.
I would like to thank Lawndale Christian Legal Center and the planning committee for this event and its Board for allowing me to come and share my thoughts on the work of Restorative Justice in our city, state and in our nation.I want to thank my wife Chandra for her continued support for me and her continued love for me and our four children. I want to thank Project Nia and their Executive Director Miriam Kaba who has been tirelessly fighting for our children and fighting against the School House to Jail House Pipeline in our city schools. You are deserving of this honor tonight. And I want to thank all of you for coming out to support this organization tonight. Your continued financial, material and Spiritual support will make a tangible difference in the lives LCLC touches. Please give yourselves a hand.
When I was approached by Cliff Nellis to bring your Keynote address, I sought the Lord on what I should say to you as we celebrate LCLC's great achievements as we look to the future. I had the opportunity while I was in New York waiting on my flight to read Ta-Nehesi Coates work, The Case for Reparations.
As I read this article, it took me on an emotional journey as he shared real life stories of African-American men and women right here in North Lawndale who saw their hopes for their American Dream dashed due to policies designed to create barriers to their pursuit of happiness. His words arrested me and inspired me to look deeply at what I am doing as a restorative justice activist and what I am doing to begin the healing process our country so desperately needs.
We are a nation that has been in war from within and from without. It is time for the healing to begin or we will lose a generation to war and violence. Now is the time to usher in a new era where healing and peace is the new normal. So tonight, my hope is to make a Case for Restorative Justice and how we can build institutions to begin the process of healing in our nation.
For all of the future lawyers, Judges and those that support the legal profession, I want to start by telling you that I am a preacher by trade and not a legal scholar but I hope to make a salient argument using law and scripture to back up and plead my case to all of you. My hope is to convict you as I was convicted to the power of Restorative Justice.
Let us begin by looking at the Constitution of the United States and specifically the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments as I make my case for Restorative Justice.
The 13th Amendment states: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." When I read this amendment, this phrase jumps out at me--"except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted" opened my eyes to how the "school house to jail house Pipeline could exist in America. How mass incarceration, suspensions, expulsions and arrest can exist in our school districts. How African-Americans are the most vunerable to these practices and our children are given no way reaching their true potential. We as citizens of the United States have a responsibility to change the perception and reality of our African-American citizens. By allowing this damaging system we are holding all of America hostage to hate. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King so eloquently put it: "Injustice any where is a threat to Justice everywhere".
The 14th Amendment section 1 states: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the states wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the priviledges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law."
This amendment has given former slaves the right to full citizenship which should have made recently freed African-American and their children full citizens under the law. However, states through legislation and "Jim Crow" created a caste system in America. And with the "New Jim Crow", African-Americans are finding themselves not having the full benefit of due process but are finding themselves having the process do them in. America was built on slave labor and the vestiges of this institution has found its way back into our society through mass incarceration.
Michelle Alexander puts it this way in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incaceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She states, "Arguably the most important parallel between mass incarceration and Jim Crow is that both have served to define the meaning and significance of race in America. Indeed, a primary function of any racial caste system is to define the meaning of the race in its time. Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defines what it meant to be black (second- class citizen). Today masss incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people especially black men, are criminals, That is what it means to be black." This anaylsis brings home the stark differences of what it means to be black in America and what it means to be white. It is the America that I live in as an African-American man where as it is written in the Bible I have to be as "wise as a serpent but as soft as a dove". This is the tight rope I must walk on as an African-American in order for me and my family to survive in America. I have to realize that there is no sanctuary for me in America and that this must change if America is ever to realize the true meaning of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all its citizens.
The 15th amendment states: "The right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude". History has shown us that states have found ways to keep African-Americans from excercising their rights to vote from poll taxes, reading the State's constitution, guessing the number of items in a jar, terrorism, intimidation, and even murder. Through the efforts of the generation that lead the Civil Rights movement, laws and programs were enacted to correct these issues which included the historic Voting Acts Bill of 1965 over 50 years ago. When we look at the current landscape, mass incarceration is eroding the hopes of a people to realize its true potential as citizens. In Brett Snider's, Esq. article, Do Convicted Felons have Voting Rights, only 2 States have no disenfranchisement: Maine and Vermont. Forty-three States and D.C. have partly, potentially or fully restored voting rights after completion of their sentence. And four States have permanent loss of Voting Rights Fla., Iowa, Ky., Va., and Alabama. He states that "Felony disenfranchisement is regulated by each State. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this in a 1974 case Richardson v. Ramirez determining that it does not violate the 14th amendment to keep felons from voting even after they've completed their sentence.
Why have I shared these amendments with you? What was the point. These three amendments were designed to right a wrong. To Repair a serious harm!! To restore dignity and humanity back to a proud people who for so long were as Derrick Bell called African-Americans "The faces at the bottom of the Well". And these amendments attempted to do just that--to repair harm. But as we look at what is happening in the 21st century, we are finding that these rights that we have gained are slowly being eroded by the harsh winds of racism. Now more than ever we must keep up the fight for the Soul of America. WEB Dubois in his work, "The Souls of Black Folks" stated that the problem of the 20th century is the COLOR LINE and I dare say the problem of the 21st is that the COLOR LINE has become blurred.
To clarify why it is important to understand the gravity the situation we are in, here are some statistics to make it clear why we must turn this situation around:
Only 41% of Black men graduate form High School in the United States.
Just 22% of Black males who began at a four college graduates with 6 years.
In Chicago, only 30% of Black males graduate from High School, of these 3%of them obtain a bachelor's degree by the time they're 25.
One and three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 years old is under correctional supervision or control
Blacks account for only 12% of the US population but 44% of all prisoners in the US.
Thirty-two percent of all suspended students are Black. Black students are twice as likely as whites to be suspended or expelled.
1.46 million Black Men out of a total population of 10.4 million have lost their right to vote due to felony convictions.
When I look at these numbers, I see disconnected men, womwn, and children from their pathway to citizenship. My friends, America has a Head and Heart Problem. When we as a nation blame the victim for their conditions and penalizes them for the conditions that have been designed to diminish their hopes of equality and fairness in America--America has a Head and Heart Problem. When Schools replace hugs for metal detectors, America has a Head and Heart problem. When district schools feel more like institutions of corrections than institutions of learning, America has a head and heart problem. When educators see suspension, expulsion, and arrest as a part of a comprehensive package called tough love, America has a Head and Heart problem. When a sitting juvenile court Judge has to tell school districts all over the U.S. "Do not send me the students you are mad at but the youth you are scared of" America has a Head and Heart problem.
Mr. T. Cotes shares these words about what we need to do Americans:
"What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white. [And I dare say black shame] What I'm talking about is more than recompense for PAST INJUSTICES--more taking hand outs, a pay off, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I'm talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to a spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing down hot dogs on the fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling "patriotism" while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.
I believe that if America is going to reconcile itself, heal from its past and present condition, right the wrongs it has inflicted on its people, America will move into the dawning of a new awakening in our collective consciousness.
Michele Alexander puts it best:
"We could choose to be a nation that extends care, compassion, and concern to those who are locked up and locked out or headed for prison before they are old enough to vote. We could seek for them the same opportunities we seek for our own children; we could treat them like one of "us". We could do that. Or we can choose to be a nation that shames and blames its most vulnerable, affixes badges of dishonor upon them at young ages, and then relegated them to a permanent second-class status for life. That is the path we have chosen, and it leads to a familiar place."
What makes me excited this evening is that LCLC has chosen a new path that will take our city to unfamiliar territory but to a place where we need to go! We are using as a method the philosophy of Restorative Justice as we build a legacy for our children's children called Community Restorative Justice Peace Hubs.
First let me explain to you what Restorative Justice is opposed to Traditional Justice and how the Community Restorative Justice Peace Hubs will support the creation of "Ecosystems of Care in our city.
So what is Restorative Justice? Why should I embrace it? Well I am glad you asked!!!
Restorative Justice according to J. Braithwaite is a process where all stakeholders affected by an injustice have an opportunity to discuss how they have been affected by the injustice and to decide what should be done to repair the harm. With crime, restorative justice is about the idea that because crime hurts, justice should heal. It follows that conversations with those who have been hurt and those who have afflicted the harm must be central to the process.
I want to elaborate on this part of the definition by J. Braithwaite: ". . .if crime hurts, justice should heal." I want to share with you this point. Hurt People Hurt People!!!!! The victims of today will become the offenders of tomorrow if the victim's needs are not met. Meeting the need of the victim, holds the offender accountable to repairing the harm and gives the community the opportunity to be a part of the healing process. Our punitive model continues to focus on the offender of a crime or the offense. It takes out the voice of the victim and the wisdom of the community to solve its issues and heal their relationships. Restorative Justice and its plethora of practices are designed to heal and not hurt.
How do I know that this is possible? How do I know that Restorative Justice is the game changer we have been looking for? How do I know that restorative justice works?
Well I am glad you asked?
As the first Culture and Climate Specialist in an American Public School, my team and I were tasked with creating an "Ecosystem of Care" in our school and to turn the school from a school of violence to a school of peace!!!
All the adults in our school building were trained in practices and the philosophy of Restorative Justice. We created a space where youth can come to receive restorative measures for a variety of issues and situations. Every adult was charged with asking these two questions when they interacted with students--HOW DO YOU FEEL and WHAT DO YOU NEED?
And once we changed our approach, we saw a drastic reduction in suspension, expulsions and arrest in our school.
WE MOVED AWAY FROM HURTING OUR STUDENTS TO HEALING OUR STUDENTS!!!!
This had a ripple effect in the community that surrounded our school. Instead of parents coming up to the school wanting to fight, parents were requesting peace circles with other parents to resolve their differences. Parents felt more open to come and share with the school HOW THEY FELT AND WHAT THEY NEEDED!
The perception of the school changed from being a place where students are not cared for to now being a place where all the adults functioned as IN LOCO PARENTIS!!! We need to go back to the "Spirit of the Law" which was rooted in English Common Law. They saw schools as having "not only educational but also moral responsibility toward students".
So whatt can you expect from the Community Restorative Justice Hub at LCLC for the youth and families it serves in North Lawndale!!!
I am glad you asked!!!
The HUB will be based in the philosophy and practices of Restorative Justice and it will be supported by these five pillars:
They are Welcoming--Places of safety and respect that nurture the spirit.
The next is Accompainment--
Young people who become part of the HUB are no longer alone. Caring adults will accompany them as they pursue their goals often against forbidding odds.
Next is relentless engagement with young people and their families, no matter what sort of difficulties a given individual is struggling with. This engagement includes peace-making circles and mentoring to promote healing, honest communication, conflict resolution, healthy relationships, connection and a sense of belonging.
The Hub will provide relentless engagement with the larger community of stakeholders with whom the young person is connected including schools, police, and probation. The idea is to transcend adversarial relationships in all directions.
And finally, the Hubs are all in collaboration with one another. They are connected creating a citywide networks of healthy support centers for young people. True collaboration is a process where the collaborators continue to learn and to be part of a learning community.
I close my case with this verse from the New International version of the Holy Scripture:
Gal 6:1 "Brothers if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself or you will be tempted".
We have an opportunity to repair our communities and bring healing back into our schools and our communities. We have just started building these HUBS through out our city and we have an opportunity to save our children from the violence that is ravaging our streets. There is nothing more powerful than a mind that is made up. Our mind is made up that our Nation must change direction. As a nation, we are going in the wrong direction. We must change direction and change our approach to our children. They are waiting for us to restore them and to bring them back from the brink. We are encouraged that Restorative Justice is what we have been waiting for. Thank you.