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Whose side are you on?

November 10, 2009

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.   


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