“What do crime victims actually want?”
That is a question that sujatha baliga is asked quite frequently as a facilitator in restorative justice programs that focus on making a victim whole after a crime rather than punishing the person who committed the crime. “You can never really predict what will make a victim whole. Sometimes, it’s Tinker Bell,” balinga said.
A rumble of laughter swept through the auditorium at Yale Law School, where more than five hundred law students had gathered for the long-running Rebellious Lawyering conference. The BC chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (with some help from the Amnesty International BC Chapter), helped pay for the roughly 20 BC law students (including me) to attend the conference, which has become a tradition amongst BC law students interested in social justice.
I sat between two of my BC law friends in the auditorium, and we all leaned in to hear more.
Balinga told the story of a family with an agender teenager named Sasha who was seriously injured when a 17 year old boy caught Sasha’s skirt on fire on an Oakland bus. Richard Thomas, who put the lighter to the skirt, was sentenced to seven years in prison. The victim’s family wrote a letter to the court saying that the system had failed them, but not in the way you might think. The young man had, immediately after his arrest, written several letters of apology to the family. But because of the structure of the criminal justice system, the letters wouldn’t reach the family until 14 months later. Reading the letters, Sasha and the family wanted to repair their relationship with the young man, but the way that the trial system works does not allow for this contact to occur. As Sasha’s father hugged Richard’s mother at the sentencing, it was clear that these victims didn’t want prison time.
Balinga had tried to get this case diverted into her restorative juvenile diversion program in Alameda County, CA, but the prosecutor said it was too serious of a crime. What could restorative justice have done differently?
“Restorative justice focuses on mending broken human relationships, positing that crime is a violation of people and interpersonal relationships, that those violations create obligations, and that the central obligation is to do right by the people you’ve harmed.” writes balinga. It begins by putting the victim, the perpetrator, and other affected parties in direct conversation.
Back in the Yale auditorium, balinga told us the story of a young man in trouble for stealing a woman’s car. The victim worked in law enforcement, and she did not seem eager to work with the young man though she had agreed to try the restorative justice program before going to court. When she was asked what would make her whole, she replied curtly, “the cost of my car.” Balinga knew the young man, whose family was barely getting by, could not afford to pay her for the car, but she brought the two together, hoping something would happen. After a long discussion where the young man admitted fault, the woman was still stiff. Finally, someone asked the young man what he was good at.
“Art,” he said.
“This woman is not going to let you pay her back with your art,” his mother quipped.
Balinga said she was as surprised as anyone when the woman finally spoke.
“Tinker Bell. A Tinker Bell as big as me,” the woman jumped in. “And not the new slutty one. The original Tinker Bell. I will forgive you the debt if you paint me a Tinker Bell as big as me.”
And so he did. The young man worked with a local artist and painted a Tinker Bell on a wall in her house. Relationships were restored rather than disrupted, a young man quit stealing and chopping cars, and a woman now has a life-sized Tinker Bell painting on her wall. Tinker Bell. You never know what justice will look like.
Amelia Wirts is pursuing a joint degree in philosophy and law at Boston College. She has already spent four years working toward her PhD, focusing on political philosophy, moral theory, and philosophy of law. She is especially concerned with the gender-based and racial injustices imbedded in the legal system. You can email her at ameliawirts[at]gmail[dot]com if you are interested in pursuing a joint degree in philosophy and law at BC, or if you too are moved by the rational imperative to make our shared world a more just place.