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Restorative Justice

Rewriting Retribution

By repairing harm with families and communities, restorative justice has the power to heal and break the cycle of crime

Alex LaSalvia

Following the death of her eldest son, Clarissa Turner walked into a courtroom, angry and crying, as she prepared for the arraignment of her son’s killers. Her son, Willie Marquis, was 24 years old when he was murdered at gunpoint on Nov. 29, 2011, in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

She didn’t think she would be able to walk past the defendants. When she approached the front of the courtroom to give her impact statement, she saw their faces for the first time. One of them was 20 and the other was 23. She looked at them and saw how young they were, and her first thought was: “These are somebody’s children.”

One of them looked her in the eye, and the other one hung his head low. To each of them, Turner unexpectedly said, “I forgive you.” Even though she had not processed what she said, she knew that she meant every word of it.

“Each time I said that, I felt, if it makes sense, I was getting lighter. Like every time I would say something to them, I just felt this load being lifted off of me,” Turner said. “And I realized I gave it back to them — all that anger and hate I was harboring. I gave it back to them, and it left me to be free and open to receive restorative justice.”

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Turner was first introduced to restorative justice by Janet Connors, a close friend whose son was also murdered. Turner, like Connors, now devotes her life to restorative justice work. She even started her own nonprofit organization called Legacy Lives On, which supports families who’ve lost loved ones to homicide.

Incarceration through the criminal justice system seems the only way to hold people accountable for crimes they commit. But advocates like Turner see restorative justice as a greater opportunity for healing.

Incorporating practices of restorative justice into the criminal justice system can both empower voices of victims and repair harm in ways the system cannot.

“In our current system, you will have hours and hours, and years perhaps, of proceedings,” said Jessica Hedges, a Boston-based defense attorney at Hedges & Tumposky LLP and a survivor of crime. “The victim is only heard in that system for ten minutes at the final sentencing. Maybe the prosecutor is consulting with the victim [before then] and maybe not.”

This lack of victim-centered justice led Judge Leo T. Sorokin to found RISE (Repair, Invest, Succeed, Emerge) in the Massachusetts’ federal district court in 2015. The program gives some defendants who plead guilty a chance to participate in a rehabilitation program, with a restorative justice workshop, before sentencing.

At the center of the workshop is “The Circle,” a group that brings together those responsible for crime and victims of similar crimes, creating conversations that allow defendants to understand the impact of crime and work to make amends for harm they’ve caused.

“In Circle, we learn how to say what we need to say, release a lot of pain, no one feeling embarrassed to express how they feel or what they’ve been through,” Turner said. “It’s a safe haven, a place that you can just release. And we know when we do release, we leave space open to receive anew.”

Survivor Amanda Ruiz believes the greatest impact of restorative justice comes from direct communication between victims and those who hurt them. She serves as the deputy director of programs and operations at Communities for Restorative Justice, or C4RJ.

“They just want to let that other person know how much they impacted their lives. Or they have questions, like: ‘Why me? Why did you do this to me? Were you targeting me? Are you going to come back?’” Ruiz said “All of those things are really important for a victim to be able to ask the person who harmed them because they can ask their lawyer, the police, even C4RJ as an intermediary, but really, the person who has the best answer is the person who caused them harm.”

The myth of the victimless crime

Many offenders who take part in restorative justice programs are considered to have committed what are sometimes called “victimless” crimes, like selling drugs or guns.

Connors, whose son, Joel, was murdered in a home invasion in 2001 in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, emphasizes that crimes affect a whole community, whether there is an intentional victim or not.

“If you follow those drugs, if you follow those guns, how many people get hurt? How many people get killed? How many people get arrested, deported, incarcerated? How many people get addicted? How many people die of overdoses? How many families suffer behind all of that?” Connors said. “And so people [responsible for crimes] then realize, ‘Wow, I have a lot of victims. I never thought about it.’”

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“ As huge as our individual losses [are], the loss to community is even greater.”

Janet Connors, a restorative justice facilitator

Four men were accused of stabbing Joel to death in his apartment. Three were sent to prison, while the other was acquitted. Since the trial, Connors has devoted her life to restorative justice practices, holding circles throughout the Greater Boston area at prisons and in communities, gathering those who’ve committed crimes with survivors.

Focusing on humanity

Turner emphasizes that The Circle provides structure for these transformational conversations. Along with a format to the conversation, there is a “talking piece,” where only the person holding the object can speak. This allows each person in the circle to listen and to be heard.

“The talking piece — that holds the power,” she said. “Because now it is giving order, it’s bringing the energy, right? And just being able to prompt [that] whoever has the talking piece at that moment has the floor, and everybody else just be humble and listen. So you’re teaching people how to listen.”

Robyn Houston-Bean, was nervous walking into her first Circle session following the death of her son, Nicholas, who died of a heroin overdose in 2015. This particular circle included people who had pleaded guilty to drug trafficking. She went in with the sole intention of telling them how their types of crime “ruined her life.” But it didn’t go as she had expected.

“It was weird because I expected them all to look like monsters, you know?” she said. “And they didn’t. They just looked like people.”

By hearing their stories, Houston-Bean was able to understand offenders in ways she hadn’t before. She learned what led them down the path to crime and incarceration. To her surprise, she felt empathy.

“There’s people that have grown up in different ways than I did, who had different situations in their family lives than I did, who might have been handed a really crappy, crappy life,” she said. “Then this is where they ended up, probably through no fault of their own. And I don’t think I had ever thought of it.”

For Connors, that empathy meant thinking of her son’s killers as people.

“If I think of them as monsters, I absolve them of their responsibility,” she said. “Holding them in their humanity is what makes them accountable.”

An opportunity for reflection and redemption

It wasn’t until taking part in a Circle session that Tavon Robinson realized how those affected by crimes viewed him. A victim opened The Circle talking about how her daughter did not come because she did not want to be surrounded by monsters.

“It hit me hard… Because I don’t feel like I’m a monster. But I had to actually now see through the eyes of a woman whose child overdosed and died off of a product that I was … responsible at times for putting in the world… It opened my eyes.”

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“I'm not a monster, and I don't want to be looked at as a monster.”

Tavon Robinson, a restorative justice participant

Robinson completed the restorative justice program following his second sentence. For him, restorative justice altered the patterns of harm by addressing his issues head-on.

“I was probably 85-90% sure I wouldn’t commit crimes anymore when I came home from prison,” he said. “And after that second time when I started to change my life, restorative justice made it 100%.”

Robinson’s transformation also resonated with his attorney, Hedges, who is a victim of crime herself.

“The last thing I want is for the people who victimized me to be put in a situation where they’re going to become more likely to victimize others, more damaged, more marginalized and more hopeless,” Hedges said.

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Robinson is not alone. Restorative justice shows evidence of dropping recidivism rates. A restorative justice program in Longmont, Colorado, for example, resulted in a recidivism rate of 10% for its participants from 2007 to 2009. In a 2021 report, the U.S. Department of Justice found that 43% of those released from prison in 2008 were arrested again within the first year of their release, and a total of 82% were arrested again within 10 years.

As responsible parties opt to change for the better, they often feel remorse for others’ losses and empathize with those in their circle. This has happened several times in Turner’s experience, and is one of the most powerful moments for her.

“Don’t just tell me ‘sorry’ because you think I want to hear it, but I want you to mean it,” she said. “Because when you mean you’re sorry, then that’s when your process of healing begins. Because that’s telling me you are holding yourself accountable, you own what you did. Now you want to mend. Now you want to be better, show up better, not just for me or the community, but for your own family who you harmed.”

Repairing relationships with one’s self, family and community

While restorative justice is centered around victims, the support for responsible parties can be priceless. Reintegration into society and with family, is a common goal for many.

JC Anderson is no stranger to that goal. Before restorative justice, Anderson said he was a good “provider” for his children, but felt he wasn’t a good father figure. Restorative justice gave Anderson a new path to be a better support system and influence in their lives.

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“It broke me down, but it built me up to understand what a father is.”

JC Anderson, a restorative justice participant

“I didn’t want to look over my shoulder no more,” he said. “I wanted to be normal. I wanted to be a father. I wanted to go to basketball games. I wanted to throw a ball with my kid outside in the yard.”

Parental incarceration is known to have adverse physical and mental health effects on children and young adults, including heart disease, asthma, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and HIV/AIDS, according to a 2013 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Anderson had been incarcerated four times before he participated in a restorative justice program. During that fourth time, he reached this turning point. The heart of restorative justice, he said, is honesty. Only by being true to himself about his actions was he able to recognize that he had to be a better man.

“Some of us are grown men, but we’re boys inside, you know? And this makes you be a man, makes you step up to the plate and know that you [have] done wrong,” he said. “And it takes a man to be able to apologize to some people that you’ve hurt in the past.”

Similarly, Jefferson Hudson, who was incarcerated for 35 years, started his restorative justice journey while in prison, and ultimately became one of the founding members of the Transformational Prison Project. He said his grandchildren gave him the strength to do the program.

“I remember my granddaughter told me, ‘Granddad, you got to do whatever you need to do to get better so you can come home to us,’” Hudson said. “And I was like, ‘I really gotta go all in.’”

Personally, Anderson found greater self-worth and self-esteem — qualities that empowered him to be a better member of his community.

He once avoided engaging with his community in a meaningful way. Now, he has gained confidence and learned how simple greetings like “Hi, how are you?” and “Good morning” can establish rapport with neighbors. This has been a first step in introducing the community to his new, changed self.

“[Restorative justice] broke me down, but it built me up to understand what a father is or what a person is in the community or how you’re gonna move to make others understand that you’re not that type of person,” Anderson said. “If somebody reads about you, you could be judged, but [by] getting to know you, they’ll understand that you’re a different person. And it really helped me believe in myself to let others believe in me.”

Armand Coleman spent two decades in maximum security and then more than a decade in solitary confinement. After finding restorative justice, he not only worked through his traumas, but gained lessons in how to make meaningful change in his life.

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“As I started to evolve and grow into the circle space, I realized that I had a new family and new friends.”

Armand Coleman, executive director of the Transformational Prison Project

“One thing I learned through restorative justice is that anytime I have an irrational reaction to everyday experiences, it means my trauma is being triggered,” he said. “All prison did was compound those traumas, and it just made me worse.”

Coleman became one of the founders of Massachusetts’s Transformational Prison Project and serves as executive director.

What now?

Restorative justice has the potential to provide a more empathetic approach to the criminal justice system. But it’s still an approach that may not be for everyone.

“You have to be a part of the process to really get the full effect of it, because I can tell you and preach to the choir all day about what it’s doing for me, and it may not have that same impact on you. And I’m okay with that,” Turner said. “But I can tell you what it’s done for me.”

Turner’s second-youngest child, Marquez, for example, has not yet attended a circle. Unlike her, he is not ready to forgive his brother’s killers. He acknowledges that he’ll go to a circle one day, but he’s still in the process of accepting his brother’s death.

“The forgiveness part — me, personally, I can’t do that. I haven’t even seen their faces yet,” he said. “My mom, I honor her for doing that, though, because it takes a lot of strength to do that, especially for a woman that’s been through what she’s been through.”

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