In my attempt to make sense of the many wrongs that are done in the name of justice and the ways in which I can be a part of the solution, I reached out to my cousin, Aviance, a defense attorney, for a conversation, and guess what, I learned something new, so I asked her to share a bit of her work with Restorative Justice here on the blog with you.
When I tell folks that I am a criminal defense attorney I am often met with judgmental looks or outright cries of disgust. Despite many people’s disdain for what I do, I am not offended by the reactions, I just merely receive it as a lack of understanding of the criminal justice system, or as I call it, the criminal injustice system.Aviance D. Brown
For those of you who have never encountered the criminal justice system for anything beyond a mere traffic ticket, engage me as I detail the process through the story of one of my former clients. For the sake of this, we will refer to her as Alex. Alex was an 18 years old college student at a prestigious university on a full-ride scholarship. While hanging out drinking with some friends one night, Alex ended up vomiting on herself, and then passed out from a hangover. The next day Alex and her friend went to the store to purchase a couple items. Alex hadn’t brought a change of clothes to her friend’s the night before, and when they got to the store, she realized how gross she looked and smelled. She picked up a few items along with a sweatshirt to change into. When she got to self-checkout she realized she didn’t have enough money, she swiped one of the cheaper items twice and put the sweatshirt in the bag. Then she went into the bathroom and put the sweatshirt on. Alex was caught by the security cameras, and just as she was making her exit, a loss prevention team member approached, and she was taken into an office to discuss what she had done, and she returned the shirt.
I am sure that at this point the judgment is starting to settle in for you because our nation has made us believe that a person who commits a crime deserves to go to jail and often be forgotten about by society. But let’s remember, we have all done something we were not proud of. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we are all in fact criminals, we just haven’t been caught for what we’ve done. Ever driven over the speed limit? Criminal! Drank before you turned 21? Criminal!! Smoked a little bud while in college? CRIMINAL!!!
In our judgmental state we never stop to consider what leads a person to commit a crime. Poverty, mental illness, and substance abuse disorder are the leading causes of criminal activity. What are we doing to address the issues at the root? In no way am I saying that one should be absolved from taking responsibility for their actions, but at some point, we must accept the facts presented in the data: incarceration does not prevent crime, it is not a deterrent, and prisons are not rehabilitative.
Alex’s story can play out in two ways. In the way that the current criminal justice system handles things, this is how Alex’s situation will go: She will be arrested, taken to jail, and because she cannot afford to post bail, she will be forced to wait there until her first appearance in court. Her second court date likely won’t be set until a month after the first and then her case will be continued three more times after that. By the end of it, she will likely have between 45-60 days in jail for merely taking a sweatshirt that she returned. When her case is finally resolved, she will lose her scholarship, and will not be able to apply for financial aid once the school finds out what she has done. She will have to return home. Her case will likely eventually get dismissed through a first offenders’ program because it was her first time ever getting into legal trouble. Despite the charge being dismissed, it will still appear on her criminal record.
Millions of people nationwide with a criminal record struggle with securing employment, obtaining housing, getting financial aid, and securing licensures. The list of collateral consequences of a criminal record go on and on. Not only do we punish people by sending them to jail/prison, but they come out with a permanent scarlet letter that prohibits them from nearly any kind of advancement. After they pay their debt to society, they continue to be punished for the rest of their lives. What justice is this?
Oftentimes, those folks who judge me for what I do go straight to heinous crimes that the media feeds us, not understanding that of all the people incarcerated nationwide over 470,000 have not even been convicted of anything yet; they cannot afford bail and they’re merely awaiting trial. This is why Michelle Alexander said that Americans who are rich and guilty get treated better than those who are poor and innocent. While in Alex’s case, she may have only had to wait for a little over two months, when faced with more serious charges that wait for a trial often lasts months, sometimes even years.
Over 97% of people convicted of a crime never go to trial. They are frequently scared into taking plea deals when presented with the incentive of taking a much lighter sentence if they plea. So what can we do about all of this?
I have been engaging in a process called Restorative Justice for the past four years. Restorative Justice, hereinafter referred to as “RJ” is an alternative method to the way we currently do things with the criminal justice system. RJ is adopted from Native American practices of conflict resolution and is currently being used all over the world. While I will admit that it is not foolproof, it is a much better method. RJ is a process by which we obtain cases, frequently first-time offender juvenile cases, and engage in what is called a circle process. In the circle, we sit down with the person who has been harmed, the person who has done harm, community support members, and trained facilitators to address the issues head on. With RJ we refrain from labels such as criminal, offender, victim, or felon, as it is our goal to see people for who they are as opposed to what they’ve done. It can be used at any stage and interestingly, for any crime! I have even seen the process used for heinous crimes such as rape and murder.
We have several key guidelines, and everyone is well-prepared in pre-circle conferences months in advance of the actual circle taking place. Both parties must be willing participants as we don’t want to force RJ upon anyone. In my experience as a defense attorney, I’ve been surprised to talk to several victims who didn’t want their offender to go to jail, but instead to get some type of help to address their issues. The current system has nothing for those victims, RJ does. In the circle we discuss what it would look like for the person who has caused harm, and what it would mean for the person who has been harmed to be restored. At the end we devise a reparation agreement with a list of duties for the person who has caused harm to do to repair their harm, both to the one who was harmed, and to the community. We believe that when one commits a crime, the entire community is affected, because a community member is injured, another one is gone and locked into a cage, so we address all of that.
RJ seeks to address the most important question that is omitted by the criminal justice system: WHY? Why did this person do this? What caused this? Why are they in poverty? In addressing these issues and learning about them, their lifestyles, and their past, it commonly becomes evident that many of them have also been victims of crimes in the past. Furthermore, many of them have suffered from childhood trauma that had not been properly addressed, thus they were on a spiraling downward path of offending and reoffending. RJ forces people to come face to face with those they have harmed, and accept responsibility for their actions, while simultaneously addressing the needs of the one who has been harmed.
RJ works to prevent crime in the future by connecting people with mental health treatment, substance abuse programs, and community support. Most importantly, us facilitators serve as a listening ear. What I have frequently discovered is that most people just want to be heard, and their voice has been suppressed for so long by poverty and/or trauma, and they eventually reach their breaking point.
Again, I will reiterate that RJ is not the end all be all. In fact, many abolitionists are calling that we take it a step further and engage in a process called transformative justice which is geared more towards shifting systems of oppression in society that cause crime. In my opinion, RJ is a start to transforming the way we currently do things.
Alex’s Story with RJ
Let’s get back to Alex, thanks to RJ, her story did not end in the way that it could have and that many others have. Unlike most, Alex was afforded the rare opportunity to engage in restorative justice. When she was taken into the loss prevention office that day, thankfully, her case was referred to the restorative justice team through the court coordinator because it was her first time ever being in trouble. We talked to Alex over a series of months, getting to know about her, her family, her life experiences and realized that poverty was at the root of her mistake that day in the store. We created a repair agreement for her to address the harm to the store and to her immediate community. Above all, she got to stay in school, and has no record as her RJ case was referred to us pre-charge. So, she gets to continue on and finish her degree, and she is now on track to become a medical doctor. This is what restorative justice does for people.
Unfortunately, many won’t get the same opportunity as Alex because RJ is not a widely accepted process, and in Durham, NC, it is a completely volunteer led program.
It is my belief that we don’t have to continue to lock people in cages and throw away the key! We have an alternative way that has the potential to heal all parties.
Aviance Brown is an attorney at law, and her practice is located in Durham, NC. When Aviance is not busy changing the world, she is spending time with her loving husband or she is baking and crafting. She makes a mean strawberry cupcake, and her wreaths are beautifully unique!
For more information about Aviance’s journey through restorative justice as an advocate watch the video below.