Thursday, July 1, 2010
My Happy Little Felons
I received my reminder email about my upcoming Community Accountability Board (CAB) meeting. In my professional life I volunteer on a monthly community-based restorative justice program run by our county sheriff’s department. Restorative Justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior rather than just punishing. It is based on a model of cooperation that includes all stakeholders—perpetrator, victims, law enforcement.
Each month my group of five community volunteers meets with four inmates (individually) who are in the last stages of their sentences and will soon be returning to our community. Since I run a youth service organization smack-dab in the middle of two low-income housing projects, I have a vested interest in knowing who’s moving in. Each inmate must attend four sessions with us. Our job is to help them identify the victims of their crime, find meaningful ways to make amends to the individual and community, and identify ways to keep from re-offending. We listen to their story, what brought them to incarceration, why they volunteered for CAB, ask them the hard questions, like, “What’s different this time?” and give them homework assignments.
Doesn’t that all sound just so enlightened? Well, can I just tell you how tiring it is to hear the same story over and over again? Maybe I’ve become cynical but I just don’t buy the “I want to do better for my kids” line when it’s the person’s 3rd, 7th, 11th incarceration for the same crime! We had one individual in front of us who has 8 children by 3 different women and could barely remember the names of all his kids! I mean really. Then there’s the guy who took the rap—and has spent the last 18 months in jail—for a family member because the family member “had more to lose.” WHAT?! What does that tell us about the value he places on his own 4 kids??? They don’t mean enough to him! And, one of my favorites, the guy who broke his 6 month old’s arm when he violently grabbed her because she was crying and he was tired. He actually thinks he’s going to get custody of his kids when he gets out. Another classic was the man who insisted that he did not have a drinking problem, he has a driving problem. As long as he doesn’t drive, he can drink all he wants. And we can’t forget the 52 year old addict, serving out his 8th sentence, who thought it was a good thing for him to be out, hanging on the streets, ‘cause he could be a role model for the kids on who NOT to become.
Of course, 99% of the crimes and issues we’ve had before us can be linked back to substance abuse. Whether it’s the 18 year old who is serving time for breaking and entering to support his habit, the stereotypical gang banger in for distribution (wasn’t his fault, wrong place, wrong time, wrong person), or the health care worker addicted to pain meds who was stealing from the clinic. Drugs will own you.
But we have has some success stories. Folks who are actually ready to take personal responsibility for their decisions, actions, behaviors, and attitudes. Folks who feel legitimate remorse for what they’ve done and who they’ve hurt, and want to make things right. I guess that’s why I keep attending—people can change and there is always hope.