Feb 24th, 2021, 04:10 AM

Restorative Justice Experts' Panel at AUP

By Avery Caroline Harle
Image Credit: Creative Commons/ChimpLearnGood
Covering "Abolitionist Organizing and Integration of Formerly Incarcerated People" talk for Black History Month.

On February 6th, 2021 at 6:00 pm (CET), AUP's History, Law, and Society majors hosted speakers on the "Transforming Tomorrow" Zoom panel entitled "Abolitionist Organizing and Integration of Formerly Incarcerated People." Some of the key panel speakers included Adnan Khan, the Executive Director and co-founder of Re:Store Justice, which promotes restorative justice workshops and provides legal help to people who are incarcerated, as well as FirstWatch, a filmmaking project where incarcerated men tell stories about life in prison. Another keynote speaker was Ashlee George, co-director of Impact Justice which works to prevent people from entering the prison system, improve living conditions, and supports incarcerated people's re-entry back into society through the traditional methods of restorative justice. 

Both speakers believe in the power of restorative justice in the American criminal justice system, which is defined as, "a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that allow all willing stakeholders to meet, although other approaches are available when that is impossible. This can lead to the transformation of people, relationships, and communities." 

In this way, restorative justice differs from the traditional process of convicting the defendant and imprisoning them, since they do not have to take direct responsibility for their actions or apologize to those who have been harmed. Thus, the foundational principles of restorative justice acknowledge that firstly, crime causes harm and justice should focus on repairing that harm; secondly, the people most affected by the crime should be able to participate in its resolution; and finally, the responsibility of the government is to maintain order and of the community to build peace.

Khan was sentenced to 25 years of life imprisonment under the felony murder rule at the mere age of 18. In this way, Khan grew up in prison, until he gained his freedom after 16 years. Yet, Khan only resorted to violence owing to his situation of being homeless and food insecure at the ripe, impressionable age of 17. After committing his crime, which can be considered by some as an outcry by a financially-insecure young adult for help, suddenly both money and police appeared, only to sentence him.

As Khan states, "the system never held me accountable, they just held me." Khan also notes that while imprisoned, he was never told to apologize to his victim's family or loved ones, or even asked to make active amends. Inspired by the lack of accountability within the system and the question of what it truly means to be criminalized, Khan "launched and worked on the Felony/Murder rule legislation (Senate Bill 1437) with his organization, Re:Store Justice. The bill passed and after serving 16 years, in January 2019, Adnan was the first person re-sentenced under the bill he helped create." 

Like Khan, George considers the restorative justice movement to be a, "time to have a serious look at what we call 'punishment'," and as a woman of color herself, a "fight against racism and anti-Blackness." In the simplest terms, George considers restorative justice to be about relationships, and how one builds, nurtures, and sustains those relationships." Thus, restorative justice returns to the fundamental principles of humanity. How do we talk to one another? Are we using intentional language? In the case of the perpetrator, to practice restorative justice after committing a crime, the central obligation is to, as much as possible, do right by the people you've harmed. 

Restorative justice evidently differs from the current criminal legal approach, since the current system focuses on judicial questions. What law was broken? Who broke it? How will they be punished? Conversely, the restorative justice approach addresses more progressive questions. Who has been harmed? What do they need? Whose obligation is it to meet those needs? 

Image credit: Unsplash/Kalea Morgan

Krystel Nozier, a junior at AUP majoring in History, Law, and Society and minoring in International Law, attended the panel with her classmates. Krystel herself is exploring the concept of restorative justice as an HLS student, as she believes "the general perception of people in prison or have been convicted of a crime is not positive, and society is rarely empathetic to these individuals." Owing to legislation like the 1994 Crime Bill passed by former US President Bill Clinton, a large population of prisoners that are currently incarcerated were convicted and sentenced for petty, non-violent crimes, such as the possession of marijuana. Krystel notes that many US states are currently legalizing medicinal and recreational marijuana use, and that the drug is no longer considered "dangerous" as it was previously. 

Nevertheless, Krystel believes that there are lots of things to grapple with when it comes to the concept of restorative justice itself, but that prison reform and the de-privatization of prisons is the first step. By taking the money out of the institution, corporations can no longer profit off of Black and Brown bodies, since each prisoner essentially accounts for some major corporation's wealth. Furthermore, like Khan insinuated during his talk, Krystel remarks that "society needs to comprehend the circumstances that make individuals like Khan commit crimes, " as well as the trauma of poverty. 

Either way, Krystel knows there is so much to be done, and hopes President Biden and Vice President Harris will address America's mass incarceration of predominately Black and Brown bodies during their administration by not shunning convicts out of society by punishing them, but rather providing rehabilitation to those so desperately in need.