REPRESENT JUSTICE X JR: TEHACHAPI
I am executive director of a nonprofit called Healing Dialogue and Action. And we work with families who had loved ones murdered and families who have loved ones serving extreme sentences, or they're the population that we focus on, are people serving life sentences. And that they committed their crime when they were 25 years of age or younger. I often tell people that I have the best job in the world. I really do feel blessed that I've had the opportunity to accompany such amazing people for the last three decades. People that are the manifestation of resilience and then humanity. People that have had to experience horrible, horrible tragedies that caused horrible traumas in their life. And that process, those dark moments, and really reflect on how they've impacted not only their lives, but the lives of others, and are able to get to a point where they turn that experience around to help others.
As folks might imagine, I’ve heard stories, childhood nightmares that children have to live of, “I was five years old when I was hiding under the table and I saw my dad killed my mom.” And that five-year-old grows up, it’s very common for them, then to turn that pain inward or outward where they’re doing harm to themselves, many times, through addiction, through addiction to violence. Victims become victimizers.
And what’s interesting is that we can empathize for that child, right? That story that I just used. It’s a true story, a five-year-old witnessing his father kill his mother, and feeling at that age like he should have been able to do something. And living with the guilt that he didn’t do anything. And we can feel empathy as we hear that story.
But if that child grows up and out of that pain now hurt somebody else, now they’re no longer worthy of empathy or compassion. Now they went from having that label of victim to now having the label of criminal. And often with that label comes dehumanization, demonization, and this belief that they are unworthy of being treated with dignity. Unworthy of being given a second chance.
I remember the first year that I was chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall. I sat down with a boy who was like 15 years old and it turned out that he was from Monterrey, Mexico, which is where I was raised. So we’re talking and we’re talking about our childhoods. And he went on to tell me a story that I’ve heard similar versions of hundreds of times. He said, “I was walking down the street with my best friend, my road dog, like my brother, right? A car pulls up, they start shooting, and we start running down the street and I’m running, and I just felt that my homeboy dropped.” And he said, “So I stopped in the midst of bullets and I grabbed them. And then I remember him telling me something like, ‘Tell my mom that I’m sorry.’ But I couldn’t make out what he was saying because there was so much blood coming out of his mouth.” Right?
So imagine at 14 years old, you have your brother, your best friend, die in your arms. In this kid’s mind, the only way to deal with his pain was to go over to that neighborhood and make those kids feel what they had made him feel when they killed his brother. So it’s not that the kid was an evil kid that will, just out there shooting randomly. It’s that it came from this pain. And that is the message that I think that has to be out there more.
And I’ve been going into juvenile halls and prisons for over three decades. I have specialized on both sides. Of people, family members who have lost loved ones to homicide and those who have committed homicide. I’ve never met a young man or woman who is in prison, convicted of taking another life, that did not have a very horrible traumatic experience in their own life. And it’s not to make excuses, but we have to understand where this behavior is coming from if we want to prevent it from happening again.
And I have met the most amazing people that have had a child murdered. And to be able to walk with people that have suffered that kind of loss, that kind of pain where they say, “When my son was killed, I stopped living too.” Or, “When my daughter was killed, a piece of my heart left with her.” And yet I’ve met those parents. I’ve met those siblings that say, “Yes, this is horrible, but I don’t want the person who committed this act, I don’t want his mom or his sibling to feel the same way that we’re feeling.” And in the same way that that many people in prison are able to turn out around their worst experience as survivors, I see them do the same thing, right? Where they take that horrible experience that their family has suffered and turn it around and are helping others now.
And more recently, what I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to do is victim offender dialogues, where I bring together the person responsible for the harm, the person who was convicted of taking the life with a family member of the person who they killed. And it’s become clear that for many people, crossing that imaginary divide between what we call victims and offenders, that for many people, their healing depends on them crossing that divide, right?
For somebody who is responsible for taking a life and they reflect, and they process, their actions, and start to figure out what kind of experiences that they have in their life that could have contributed towards them taking another life. And they become aware of the harm that they’ve caused and the ripple effect of their actions, and just how many people are impacted, and they hold themselves accountable. They take responsibility for it and then they commit themselves to making amends. For them, the opportunity to sit across from a family member of somebody who they killed and express that remorse and express how they understand how much pain they’ve caused, and how terribly sorry they are, and make the commitment to that surviving member of how they’re going to live the rest of their life to try to make amends for their actions. That dip of healing doesn’t happen in any kind of therapy or any… It’s unique.
And in the same way with survivors. Survivors that come to a victim offender dialogue, they want to know, “Why did you do it? Was it something random? Was it something that personal?”. They want to know that the person responsible for the harm recognizes just how much damage they’ve done. They want to know that that person is different now, that they’ve changed. That because they’ve come to the realization of what they’ve done in, and the impact that have had, that that has motivated them to become better people. And that brings a healing to the lives of survivors that is unique, that only comes from crossing that divide.
And while that might sound like a process that isn’t for everybody, I truly believe that if we just commit to being present and responding to the needs of people who are in pain, that regardless of where they’re at… I meet survivors that say, “I want the person who injured me to be dead. I want them to to to get the death penalty,” and that’s where we meet them. That’s where we accompany them. Wherever people are, people in prison who say, “You know what? I chose this lifestyle. I don’t give a damn. I’m going to continue living this lifestyle.” That’s where we meet them. That’s where we meet them.
Because all of that comes from pain and I know that because of the people that I’ve been able to accompany, I know that any pain as deep as it is, it can get better. It can get better if we are willing to listen. If we are willing to commit to responding to the individual needs of people who are suffering and if we want to prevent violence from happening in the future, if we will, that’s a huge piece of it. That we are reaching people that are in pain, that might’ve already acted out of the pain, but that unless they are offered opportunities to heal will continue that down that lifestyle. And meeting people who are in pain because of the harm that’s been caused to them personally through violence and accompanying them wherever they are so that they don’t get to a place where they feel like the hurt that they’re carrying is going to lead them to hurt others.
I wonder what our justice system would look like if we prioritized the healing of individuals over our need for revenge. There’s many different ways to hold people accountable. Locking folks up for extreme sentences doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t help prevent violence from happening because we can’t lock everybody up and most people are coming home. I truly believe that if more people went inside prisons and had an opportunity to meet some of the human beings that we have given up on, that we were giving life sentences too, if more people had an opportunity to meet them, we’d have a different justice system. We would not have a justice system where you can send a child to prison for life. We would not have the death penalty. We would not have life without parole.