Governor Walz recently signed a bill into law allowing military veterans convicted of low-level offenses to participate in a restorative justice process and avoid prison. The RJ process will not be available for “violent offenders” as if restorative justice is ineffective or inappropriate for people branded with this label.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. This most recent so-called criminal justice “reform” bill falls tragically short of the Governor’s One Minnesota campaign slogan and proclaimed belief in criminal justice reform.
“Violent offender” is a misnomer and should not be used to exclude incarcerated people from the many conversations and reforms occurring in criminal justice. For one, the term includes people convicted of crimes that didn’t involve “great physical force”—as violence is defined in the dictionary—such as illegal possession of a weapon. It also implies that a person is uncontrollably and perpetually violent, a constant and current risk to society and incapable of change.
I am convicted of a violent act. But this one act does not justify labeling me as a violent offender. This one act occurred nearly 20 years ago when I was 24 years old. Yes, my crime caused a lifetime of unbearable pain for many. But placed in context, it made up less than three minutes of the nearly 12,614,400 minutes of my entire lifespan up to that point.
In other words, my crime did not even take up more than a tenth of 1% of my entire lifetime. Since those tragic three minutes, I have never had a violent interaction throughout my years of incarceration (an additional 10,512,000 minutes of my life).
Interestingly, throughout my 20 years of incarceration, I have observed hundreds of incarcerated individuals labeled “non-violent” offenders ( parole violators, drug offenders) go in and out of segregation for multiple fights during their short stays in prison, and yet, they qualify as non-violent simply because of the act they initially convicted of, not their recent behavior pattern.
Restorative justice is a process to address crime by focusing on harms, needs, and obligations in order to heal and repair relationships. Racial justice philosophy holds that everyone is capable of change and healing. Accountability and community safety are more adequately achieved across all spectrums of harm, including violent crime through the restorative justice process rather than punishment.
Danielle Sered wrote in her groundbreaking book, “Until We Reckon,” “time after time, victims tell the parole board that they still feel exactly the same way they did the day the crime occurred…. If someone’s pain does not subside over time, it means the tools [prison] we are using to transform it are at worst wrong and at best inadequate.”
Sered also noted that results from her own restorative justice program to address violent offenses in New York City— Common Justice—along with an abundance of studies, such as Caroline M Angel’s Crime Victims meet their offenders: Testing the Impact of Restorative Justice Conferences on Victim’s Post Traumatic Stress Symptoms, indicates restorative justice is capable of meeting the needs of crime victims and public safety.
According to Sered, “Being punished requires only that people sustain the suffering imposed for their transgression. It is passive. Prison does not encourage people to do the hard work of being accountable and becoming someone who will not commit harm again.”
“Accountability and safety are achieved when the person who caused the harm acknowledges responsibility understands the impact of his actions, takes actions to repair the harms as much as possible, addresses the needs of the victim and community he or she harmed, and commits to living a life without crime.
“Committing to living crime-free requires one to strengthen empathy and respect for others, invest time in one’s own healing of past trauma that contributes to the cycle of violence, learn strategies to manage one’s emotions and errant thought patterns, and build healthy interdependent relationships that can protect the durability of these lessons in the face of change, loss, and other stressors.”
Prison is not a healthy environment conducive to the needs and obligations of those who have committed a violent crime. I know this from personal experience. If not for restorative justice practices and teachings that I have sought on my own, my belief system that led to my crime would not have changed just because I sat behind bars.
It took tremendous work for me to overcome the hurdles prison imposed on me and becoming a socially responsible, empathetic and crime-free person. A wealth of research shows that prison is more effective at having a criminogenic effect than it is at providing public safety.
Prison is an incubator for at least four key drivers of crime according to research identified by Sered, shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and poverty.
If Governor Walz wants to make meaningful changes in criminal justice, he will encourage legislation that promotes a restorative approach to crime.
Jeffery Young is a writer and inmate at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Stillwater.