Friday, May 10, 2019

Imagining A Greater Justice: Criminal Violence, Punishment and Relational Justice

By Professor Samuel H. Pillsbury 

This excerpt of the book Imagining A Greater Justice: Criminal Violence, Punishment and Relational Justice originally appeared in the Friday, May 10, 2019 edition of the San Francisco and Los Angeles Daily Journal

As a society, our most pressing need for justice comes after criminal violence. A young man is shot in a crosswalk on a summer's night and bleeds to death on the asphalt. A wife is punched and choked by her husband. A girl is sexually molested by her basketball coach. Hearing about these events, our feelings move quickly from sympathy for victims to anger at perpetrators. We hope to see their swift arrest, conviction and punishment. Then we can say that justice has been done.

But we need more than law to do justice in these cases. We need a justice commensurate with the harm. This means we need a justice that comprehends the grief of the young man's family, the soul hurts of the beaten woman, and the girl whose world has been utterly transformed by sexual violation. We need a justice that comprehends how violence shatters survivors' sense of trust and place in community. Can we imagine this? I think we can. But we should not stop here.

Can we imagine a justice that respects an offender's humanity? Can we imagine a justice that treats someone who has spent half of his life locked up for serious crime as a human being capable of change? Can we imagine an ideal of justice that says we should try to reconcile with him to make a lasting peace in our communities? Can we imagine a justice that acknowledges the racial violence of the past and the racial denials and misunderstandings that undercut the trust needed for effective law enforcement? Can we imagine a justice concerned with healing the community after violence?

Imagining a justice this big will be a stretch for many.

I know it has been for me.

I have spent most of my professional life working on justice defined by what happens in the courtroom. As a young man I swore allegiance to justice under law as an officer of the court – a federal prosecutor. And I believe in it as much today, in my 60s, as I did when I was in my 20s.

As the years have passed, though, my view of justice has changed according to my experience of life. I have slowly, often reluctantly, but with increasing conviction come to believe that our conception of justice in the United States is too small. It is too focused on the conduct and character of a few identified wrongdoers. Its concern with individual blame and punishment leaves unaddressed the deep needs of those most hurt by crimes of violence. It flatly ignores, even righteously dismisses, the needs of the incarcerated and their families.

Against the grain of an American culture that celebrates individual freedom and independence, I have come to appreciate how closely tied we are to each other, by bonds chosen and unchosen. The experience of surviving violence makes the strength of these bonds awfully clear. Our conception of justice should respect the reality of how we live in dynamic, interdependent relationship. In addition to holding persons responsible for their chosen actions, we need to take collective responsibility for legal and social structures that determine who belongs in society, and who does not. Belonging, it turns out, is the foundation of just and peaceful community.

We need to imagine what I call relational justice, which includes the rules and processes of the criminal law, but which is bigger in both scope and heart.