Cutting down the crime: offenders & victims shake hands

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North Minneapolis has a reputation of heinous crimes, some committed by teenagers. Mary Johnson, a resident of this location had her 20 year-old son gunned down by a 16 year-old boy over a trivial misunderstanding in a dance hall!

Mary is a spiritual person and has found solace in coming to terms with reality by seeing the offender who murdered her only son as “her spiritual son”. She has since founded two support groups named “From Death to Life” and “Two Mothers Healing”.

Mary was giving her testimony at a community dialogue on Restorative Justice hosted by the Minneapolis-based Restorative Justice Community Action, Inc. at the St. Joan of Arc Church in South Minneapolis on Wednesday October 22.

Suppressing her deep emotion on the tragedy that she has gone through, she ended up forging friendship with the mother of the guy who murdered her child as a way of healing. Restorative Justice Community Action and AMICUS have been instrumental in bringing former enemies to “shake hands” and move on with life as friends.

AMICUS has a forty year record of matching trained volunteers to individual offenders at four Minnesota metro area Correctional Facilities at Lino Lakes, Shakopee, Stillwater and Oak Park Heights. Trained volunteers make year old friendships and beyond with ex-offenders bringing hope where there was despair and at times leading to real friendships.

Commenting on this one to one AMICUS mentoring program, a participant had this to say: “Amicus has been a light of hope for me and others I know. The work that is done at Amicus shows me that there are people who care.”

Yet another participant of this program had the following favorable comment to make: “I know that my mentor has no hidden agenda. His only concern is my well-being and successful return back into society. It takes a special person to go out of his way to help a prisoner.”

Various testimonials were heard from people like ex-school teacher Jerry Clark who spoke about the need to replace the “shaming attitude” with restorative justice. He said in life, “there are no mistakes, just lessons to be learnt.”

He gave the advice that instead of shaming “the powerless little offender” – giving the example of a four-year old child, why not “just let the little guy feel good.”

Brad Kaufman, a University student narrated his anti-social behavior at College especially on week-ends when he would go out drinking and ended up stepping on other peoples’ toes without any remorse. After going through a program of restorative justice, he ended up doing volunteer work to the community that enabled him grow and respect other peoples’ rights and freedoms.

Kaufman said he feels strongly that the punitive justice system for a rich guy who ends up paying a fine does not transform the offender. “You simply pay the penalty and you are done, this does not rehabilitate you.”

Russel Balenger, another speaker, gave the story of an ex-jail bird who spent much of his life behind prison bars until he realized that he had had “enough of prison life and needed change.” After going through a program of restorative justice, he learnt that he could transform his life for the better and sought to be accepted back by his community.

Community members who attended this forum on restorative practices weighed in on various remedial measures including the need for society to remain grounded in having strong family ties with supportive parenting of our children, learning how to say “I am sorry – which is a miracle cure”, practicing anger management and how parents can listen to and talk to their children to give them a sense of being appreciated.

It was noted that the absence of “effective communication with our kids” may lead to anti-social behaviors as these unguided kids end-up learning what life is all about from street gangs. Parents have a duty and responsibility to raise their children well and support each other “although in America, it is very hard for me to help raise your child”, lamented one elder causing laughter that in this culture it does not take a village to raise a child.

One community member observed that restorative justice was good for the community but wondered just how many ex-offenders are prepared to go through this process undertaken by AMICUS and Restorative Justice Community Action, Inc.?

He urged our communities to work together with non-profits and our Justice system to help “transform ex-enemies into friends” as a way to cut down crime within our neighborhoods.

It was dully appreciated that while “doing justice” through transformative change has many hurdles and challenges, it remained the imperative duty of community members to walk this talk as a way to addressing crime concerns in our country.