The privilege and beauty of the job I have as a foundation president is the ability to be regularly exposed to what humanity, courage, mercy, empathy, and social justice leadership looks like.
I experienced this phenomenon in a most powerful and compelling manner this past week.
I am humbled to serve as chair of the Los Angeles County Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) workgroup, a collection of system, community, and advocacy leaders crafting a roadmap for justice reform in our region on behalf of the Board of Supervisors.
The meetings are open to the public — inclusive, messy, and beautiful all at once. You have reform-minded, formerly incarcerated individuals and grassroots leaders sitting at the same tables as representatives of law enforcement, the District Attorney’s office, and judges – all working towards consensus about what meaningful “reform” looks like. We agree on many things, disagree on some things, but the passionate exchanges have been respectful, civil, and illuminating.
This past Friday our ATI workgroup held a half-day retreat focused on the matter of victims of crimes, and restorative justice.
For the uninitiated, Restorative Justice is an alternative to the traditional crime-and-punishment culture of our nation’s justice system. It combines themes of accountability, mercy, and justice in the space between the offender and the victim – and infuses a sense of humanity into a justice system embodied by steel bars and isolation.
We ended our ATI retreat on Friday with a two-hour session that featured four individuals in conversation – two women and two men, two victims of crimes and two serious offenders who served their time in prison. The conversation was thoughtfully facilitated by Javier Stauring of the Healing Dialogue & Action organization.
It is impossible to put into words the power, meaning, and connection evident among the four discussants. Although two of the four were “victims” and two of the four had been violent “criminals”, the conversation exhibited a mutuality and shared sense of trauma, adversity, pain, revelation, mercy, reconciliation and restoration. Tears flowed, hugs were shared — and sitting in a conference room that has hosted hundreds of well-rehearsed PowerPoint presentations over the years – humanity soared for a brief moment in time.
In one especially poignant moment for me, one of the ex-offenders, who committed a particularly violent crime many years ago, eloquently expressed his sense of revelation that any victim of a crime could show him “mercy” – that it was given to him, despite his own sense that he did not deserve it.
The matter of justice reform in America is a complicated and wonky business – there are police, and prosecutors, and judges, and attorneys, and courtroom policies and procedures, and bail and lockup – all haunted by the matter of race. But this two-hour conversation involving four very human people reminded me of what our justice system in America, in the final analysis, needs to be about: accountability, restoration, healing, and wellness.
A system where we begin to “see” one another, in the fullest sense of our shared humanity.