Tag Archives: victim-offender dialog

A red state struggles with reform

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-1-42-22-pmWhat constitutes real criminal-justice reform?

Advocates have warned for years that it’s a mistake to limit sentencing reforms to nonviolent drug offenses. Marie Gottschalk explores this in depth in a penetrating critique of the reform movement in Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, where she talks about the policies aimed only at “non, non, nons” (nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual offenses).

In fact, dividing the criminal world into violent and nonviolent is a “demonstrably false” construct to begin with, as Katherine Beckett argued in this recent American Prospect article, in part because drug offenders often have committed violence, while violent offenders are among the least likely to commit new offenses.

And yet public opinion favors reducing our over-reliance on prisons — but not for the majority of prisoners who are serving long sentences for violence and other serious offenses. Perhaps that’s because the public believes, against all evidence, that crime remains in a perpetual upward spiral (actually, and despite alarming spikes in some cities’ violent crime recently, crime of all types has fallen dramatically for the past 20-plus years).

In my latest article, written for TakePart, I look at the ups and downs of criminal-justice reform in a deep-red state, Oklahoma, and ask whether its efforts are doomed to irrelevance. The state can barely make progress toward the most minimal drug-offense reforms, much less toward reforms that might put a bigger dent in a system that practically everyone involved agrees is unaffordable, ineffective, and overly punitive.

The story is about more than just Oklahoma. It’s a look at justice reinvestment, a nonpartisan approach to reducing mass incarceration through policies aimed at achieving lower crime and lower imprisonment. Researchers in dozens of states have found savings in reducing the use of prisons, and advised plowing those savings into crime prevention programs. Conservatives from groups like Right on Crime support such efforts. For some on the left, that’s enough reason to oppose it, or at least look at it very skeptically. But, like many other red states that have gone before it, Oklahoma is trying to take these baby steps before making bolder moves. The question is whether success, as they define it, will be enough.

The timing of this assessment of Oklahoma’s fitful progress coincidentally comes as Congress admits it is too divided to take up the modest reforms — focused mainly on nonviolent drug offenses — that it has wrestled with, and watered down in efforts at compromise, for the past couple of years.

My story appears in a package of stories on criminal justice titled “Violence and Redemption,” with stories on rehabilitation programs for people who committed violent offenses (by Rebecca McCray), forgiveness and victim-offender dialog (by Jessica Pishko), and several others as part of TakePart’s “Big Issues” series, an ambitious project using longform journalism to explore … yes, big issues. This was my second story for TakePart, which is part of the documentary and film production company Participant Media. Last December I wrote about police reform, with a look at what’s happening in Minneapolis. I appreciate this publication’s dedication to telling in-depth stories about criminal justice, as part of its larger agenda promoting social awareness. What my editors and I liked about both stories is that they defied easy answers. They are, instead, about the struggle to address crime in constructive ways — and in ways that move beyond the broken systems of the past.

A death in prison

Marion Berry 4-29-14
Marion Berry in a 2014 prison photo

I got word this week that Marion “Marvin” Berry has died in prison at age 44. Berry was incarcerated for 29 years and five months, since the age of 15, when he and another 15-year-old, Gary Brown, were arrested on charges of kidnapping, raping, and killing 26-year-old Cathy O’Daniel.

I wrote about the case in the first installment of my series for Slate on crime victims. In that story, I focused on O’Daniel’s mother Linda White and her brand of radical forgiveness, which she has shown toward Berry’s co-defendant, Gary Brown.

Berry never experienced the kind of turnaround and redemption that Brown earned for himself. Instead, his years in Texas prisons were marked by trouble. Just five years into his 55-year sentence, he got another 12 1/2 years tacked on for possession of a homemade knife. After more fights with other prisoners and guards, and incidents of self-mutilation, Berry’s minimum sentence stood at 64 years. If all went well — and, with Berry, it never did — he was due to be released in 2051.

A Texas prison spokesman, Jason Clark, confirmed to me in an email today that Berry died at the Bill Clements Unit in Amarillo, a prison that houses prisoners in solitary confinement or requiring mental health care. Clark wrote:

On March 27, 2016, Berry was found unresponsive in his cell. Staff began life saving measures as he was taken to unit medical. EMS arrived on scene and unit medical briefed them on the situation. A physician later arrived and pronounced the offender deceased at 8:37 pm. The preliminary cause of death was natural causes.

White was the first to let me know of Berry’s death, when I coincidentally reached out to say hi and to ask if she’s heard lately from Brown. Texas’ victim-notification policies had served their purpose, and she received a letter promptly giving her the news. Speaking of Berry, White wrote in an email, “His was a very sad life, to say the least.”

As for Brown, he has remained out of touch with White, which was how I ended the story when it was published last June. When I arranged a meeting between White and Brown, and for months afterward, Brown was doing all he could to fulfill his promise to White to live a law-abiding, productive life after his release from prison. I expect and hope that is still the case. No matter what, he’s done far more than his partner in crime to turn bad into good and to show that some lives can be redeemed.

For the rest of my series, go here.

Spontaneous grace

As yesterday’s remarkable scene in a Charleston, South Carolina, courtroom unfolded — family members of some of the nine victims of the church massacre spoke up at accused shooter Dylann Roof’s first court appearance to deliver their anguish directly to him over an in-court video connection, at the same time offering their forgiveness — my first thought was to wonder how a judge ever allowed this.

The answer to that question is hard to come by in news coverage of the hearing (more on that in a moment). But first, some thoughts on victim-offender dialogue and forgiveness — topics I’ve written about here and here, and that I’ll explore in depth in my upcoming series on crime victims.

In my years of reporting on this, reading the research underlying it and talking to dozens of victims and offenders who have been through it, I’ve grown so accustomed to seeing victims benefit from dialogue and forgiveness that I found the victims’ behavior yesterday less surprising than, say, comedian and writer Albert Brooks expressed in this tweet:

The president’s tweet on this topic echoed the sort of admiration we all must feel when we see such grace under horrifying circumstances:

We’re so conditioned to hearing from victims who are consumed with rage and hurt that when we see them behave differently we often act surprised. We shouldn’t be. Victims respond in many ways, usually changing as time goes on. When we let our assumptions about them drive policy — when we confuse accountability with vengeance, and project our own anger onto them — we do victims of all types a disservice. And we make a hash of punishment policies that have grown far out of whack because they’ve been driven by this misguided presumption about what all victims need.

So I should be glad to see conciliatory victims on such prominent display. But yesterday’s rush to confront and forgive comes dangerously close to subjecting the victims’ survivors to a new form of trauma. Without adequate preparation and counseling, this sort of volatile, unplanned meeting could backfire on the victims. Ordinarily, victims get a chance to speak to an offender at sentencing, or later on in mediated dialogue. The latter is especially intense and, when done correctly, requires elaborate, careful preparation. Yesterday’s session, by contrast, seems to have happened spontaneously, carrying with it an added element of possible coercion — when one victim expresses forgiveness, how can others, particularly church people, withhold the same, even if they aren’t ready to give it? I’m not saying the forgiveness wasn’t genuine, but imagine the pressure on those who didn’t speak first, or at all, to follow the prescribed route to righteousness.

How did yesterday’s encounter come about? Most of the reports I read in search of an answer — in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and NPR, among many others — merely described the scene as emotional and unexpected, treating the victim statements as something of an unexplained fluke. The closest anyone comes to explaining it that I saw was the Charleston Post and Courier‘s Andrew Knapp, who writes that Magistrate James B. Gosnell Jr., who rarely conducts bond hearings, simply opened the floor to the victims’ families by asking if any wanted to speak.

From all indications, Gosnell — whose remarks expressing sympathy for Roof’s family as well as for the victims later drew scorn — turned the routine hearing into something else out of a desire to unite the community at an upsetting time. But at this point there are just hints at his motives, no clear explanations. If it’s true that Gosnell was winging it, someone needs to sit him down and teach him more about proper trauma care.

In her report on the hearing, USA Today‘s Mary Nahorniak quotes defense lawyers not involved in the case who express reservations about the time and place for such victim statements. They’re worried about Roof’s right to a fair trial, as they should be. At the same time, we all should hope that the victims’ families get what they really need for the long haul: trauma care that eases them into a lifelong process of coming to grips with their shocking loss.  

More than just an anecdote

Punishment is so central to our criminal-justice system, so ingrained in us as a culture, that we rarely stop to question why it serves as the only justice offered to crime victims — and what else they need that they don’t get from the arrest, conviction, and imprisonment of the person who hurt them. That’s the idea at the heart of the series of stories I’m producing in my Soros Justice Fellowship. And it’s the underlying message of this story in the Los Angeles Times yesterday by Marisa Gerber.

Gerber describes a dramatic courtroom scene. A judge is sentencing Gilbert Trejo to prison for the rape of Jane Piper. The victim, who wanted to be identified and to tell her story, took advantage of her right to speak at the sentencing by confronting Trejo — not with unbridled rage (though who could blame her?) but with her pain and unanswered questions. Why had he chosen her? How much does he think about her  now? She doesn’t get satisfactory answers. But, by speaking, and by deciding to forgive Trejo as a way of escaping the grip that the crime held on her, Piper feels a sense of relief.

It’s a moving tribute to a brave woman. Like much of journalism, it’s an anecdote. Here’s what the story leaves out: this isn’t just Jane Piper’s reaction to her trauma from crime. It’s a reality for many victims, and explained extensively in research on trauma and restorative justice. In fact, the majority of states provide some opportunity to victims to talk to the people who harmed them, or who killed their loved one, in order to find the healing that eludes us when all that’s offered is retribution.

Such restorative-justice dialogue must be conducted under much more structured settings than simply allowing a victim her moment at the microphone. For the answers that Piper seeks, Gilbert Trejo’s full participation in the conversation — after extensive preparation, and only with his candid admission of guilt and remorse — would be needed. Done the right way, the process (which I’ve written about at length in the past and in my upcoming series) provides a proven method of victim support that no lengthy prison sentence can (which isn’t to say that prison is unnecessary; just that it’s not addressing the victim’s needs).

If more jurisdictions actively promoted restorative practices like this, then more victims would know to ask for it — if not during the stress of a criminal prosecution, then afterward, when the questions and fears don’t magically disappear. If it were commonplace, then our focus truly would be on what victims deserve from us. And stories like Gerber’s about Piper would be understandable as more than just a curious and emotional moment in two strangers’ lives.

Three tales about blame and forgiveness


Screen Shot 2014-01-17 at 11.10.29 AMThanks to a former student’s tweet, I discovered this absolutely fascinating and illuminating RadioLab trio of stories on blame: all stories, in the host’s words, that “make you judge how you judge” others and “ask what blame does for us — why do we need it, when isn’t it enough, and what happens when we try to push past it with forgiveness and mercy?” They concentrate on criminal justice (which is why you’re reading about that here) from three angles:

  • The story of Kevin, whose brain-surgery treatment for epileptic seizures triggers awful obsessions with child pornography that land him in prison and test his marriage. The story intelligently and evenhandedly examines the medically based argument on his behalf that he shouldn’t be held fully responsible because of his brain malfunction and the prosecution’s counterargument that his loss of neurological control was too selective to be genuine. Kevin does not demand absolution, just understanding.
  • That leads to the middle segment, a battle of experts led by the master of simplified (but not simplistic) explanation of science and big ideas, Robert Krulwich. His three-way conversation with Duke neurolaw expert Nita Farahanay and neuroscientist David Eagleman ultimately questions why personal blameworthiness matters so much in law if we’re ultimately just creatures of brain wiring that can go haywire. Like the first story, this one explains and questions while leaving the ultimate answers (if they exist) to the listener. 
  • The final and most moving of the three stories, by reporter Bianca Giaever, features an elderly man, Hector Black, whose daughter is raped and murdered by a crackhead burglar, Ivan Simpson. We accompany Black as he moves from fury (“At first, I yelled out ‘Kill the bastard'”) to turning away from hate to, finally, forgiveness — even, to his own discomfort and wonderment, a friendship with Simpson. Black calls their bond “absolutely crazy” — “People don’t do that” — and comes to life in the story through the letters Black exchanges with Simpson, who’s serving life without parole. The relationship reaches its most wrenching moments in the exchange the two men have well into their time together, when Black asks for the details of his daughter’s final hours. Motivated to move away from revenge at first by his need to find peace, Black discovers that human understanding and love can coexist with holding offenders accountable.

No matter your assumptions and beliefs, this package of stories presents a profound set of questions about morality, law, crime, and blame.

A mother’s questions go unanswered

Here’s a sad, stark reminder of how all the lip service about caring for crime victims can mean nothing when it comes time to provide real help to those victims.

This week I met a woman from Rochester whose son was murdered in a street shooting 11 years ago last month. The men convicted of the crime served their time and were released, something that the mom had to learn from her friends. The state of New York explained to the mom why she didn’t get the promised notification that her son’s killers would be released: the victim-notification office didn’t have her address on file. She says, in fact, that she’s lived in the same place for many years — since long before the notification should have been made — and was diligent in keeping her current address updated with the state.

But that’s not the worst of it. All these years later, the mom told me and others in a meeting that she never got a full explanation from police, prosecutors, or victims-services people about the circumstances of her son’s death. Exactly why he was killed, and what exactly happened in the moments leading to his death, remain mysteries to her. No one told her she had a right to see the police reports, at least once the case was closed, or how to go about getting copies of those reports.

It’s long been understood that one of the deepest cravings a victim, or survivor of a murder victim, has is the answer to “why?” “Why was my loved one killed? Why did you do that?” Some victims, as I wrote in this story, need to get that information directly from the criminal who harmed them or their loved one. Some victims need to forgive the criminal, as a way to get their own mind unstuck. Some need the information so they can satisfy a related need, to be heard: to tell their story. “This is what happened to my son. This is what happened to me.”

Certainly, some victims can’t or won’t dwell on the details. Many would never want any contact with the criminal himself, but they still need help in getting answers. The point is: victims and survivors deserve whatever will help them heal. That’s not only a tenet of restorative justice, but it’s what we as a society have resolved to provide since we supposedly got better at recognizing victims have rights.

My Rochester mom’s story is but one of many examples of how we fail victims by not providing them basic help: following through on the meager promises we’ve made; asking how else we can assist them as they navigate a confusing, bureaucratic system. I tried to help this one mom by giving her information on how to pursue the information informally and then how to file formal requests for public records. I hope she gets the answers she needs. And I wonder when we’ll care enough about all victims and survivors that a dedicated, loving mother who loses a child to violence is not left in the dark for more than a decade, with no one bothering to lend a hand.