Like many crime survivors, I know that prison does not deliver on safety, healing and justice. Instead, I wanted answers to my questions, a respectful and effective means of accountability and an equitable and dignified venue to heal.
I WAS living alone in South Seattle in December 2015 when my home was burglarized. Two young men, armed with a gun, broke in through the back window, climbed over shards of broken glass and stole my external hard drive and Canon EOS camera. Fortunately, the security alarm activated and the police caught both men.
My home had been my place of refuge, but after the break in, I no longer felt safe. The police broke down the back door when they responded to the security alarm. The broken window let out all the heat and the door was unsecured for days.
I panicked every time I heard a noise at night. My mind raced with questions. Had they brought a gun with the intention of using it? If I had been home, would I still be alive? Were they from my neighborhood?
But I also wondered, how had they been treated by police? Were they loved and supported at home? What led to this choice? What is happening to them now, in jail?
Alongside advocates at the University of Washington School of Law’s Race and Justice Clinic, I contacted the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and requested a restorative-justice process. Like many crime survivors, I know that prison does not deliver on safety, healing and justice. Instead, I wanted answers to my questions, a respectful and effective means of accountability and an equitable and dignified venue to heal.
Unfortunately, prosecutors explained that because the men were 21 and 23, had criminal records and were recently released from prison for the same crime, they would not be good candidates for a restorative-justice alternative to incarceration. Almost a year has gone by, and the men are still incarcerated, facing lengthy prison sentences. This doesn’t feel like justice, and I don’t feel safer.
The concept of restorative justice is beginning to take hold in King County, as prosecutors try counseling and self-reflection for teens. This is a commendable step toward creating healthier communities. Our country’s incarceration rate is unprecedented.
The lion’s share of our prison population is adults serving sentences for violent crimes committed mostly by men ages 16 to 24. Yet as reform efforts grow, few have focused on this prison population, instead emphasizing reforms for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses or juvenile cases. As such, a moral boundary separating real criminals from more sympathetic violators is drawn so that only the humanity of the latter is recognized.
Focusing resources on those who have the highest risk of recommitting violent crime has the potential to produce the greatest impact on crime rates in our community. Furthermore, restorative justice has the deepest impact in cases of violence, and recent brain science shows that young people, not just juveniles, have the capacity for transformation.
Incarcerating the young men who broke into my home does not equate to accountability. They will never have to look me in the eye and explain themselves, and they will never have to repair the harm. At the same time, imprisoning them lets us off the hook to collectively address the structural violence that led to their actions.
We simply can’t keep locking away social problems. If we really cared about violence and really cared about survivors, we would respond with urgency to the call for transformative justice — not just for “eligible” juvenile defendants, but for everyone.