by Genevieve Hunt
Last Thursday, Janet Connors, respected restorative justice advocate and the main subject of our film, joined Julie Mallozzi and me to screen CIRCLE UP for Massachusetts state legislators and their staff at the statehouse in Boston. It’s easy to be cynical about politics, but as we waited under ornately decorated archways and gilded columns and watched a group of people animatedly discussing their issues as they left our meeting room, I thought to myself, “This is how change happens, this is how we make things better. We bring our ideas, our passion and our desire to solve problems to places like this and hopefully, we prevail.”
The screening was hosted by Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan together with Senator James B. Eldridge and Representative Sean Garballey, who are co-sponsoring legislation incorporating restorative justice as part of a criminal justice reform package. The legislation is currently being debated in the Legislature. Sen. Eldridge and Rep. Garballey said they wanted to share our story of Massachusetts’ first Victim-Offender dialogue and the profound impact it had on both parties. Both spoke about how often the justice meted out by courts often fails the victim and falls short of repairing the harm that has been done to them and the community.
DA Ryan pointed to the intimate nature of restorative justice in which successive, face-to-face dialogues between victim and offender tend to produce a more personal sense of accountability on the part of the offender for their actions and a desire to return to their community with a feeling of forgiveness and belonging. “My goal as a prosecutor is to put ourselves out of business,” said Ryan. “When you have to do that soul searching and accounting, we don’t see them again, they don’t come back.”
That change tends to be deep and robust in offender behavior. Studies comparing criminal punishment with restorative justice find that that punishment imposed from outside the offender is less powerful than personal accountability from within the wrongdoer.
Every time I watch CIRCLE UP, I am amazed at how Janet is able to put the pain of losing her son aside and offer AJ, one of her son’s murderers, not just forgiveness but a chance to begin again in their community. Offering forgiveness for a vicious harm done isn’t for everybody; that makes what Janet and AJ have achieved through the restorative justice process even more extraordinary. During the discussion after the screening, Janet spoke movingly about how helping offenders find productive ways to return to the community helps them let go of the destructive behaviors that trapped both them and the community in a cycle of despair and violence.
On the train ride home from the screening, I thought about how gratifying it was to see something we had all worked on – Julie, her production team, Janet, Legacy Lives On members and the high school students – help change our laws and the way we think about crime and punishment. I am glad to know that victims, who often feel silenced in the criminal justice process, might someday feel validated and supported. I am hopeful for young people who feel caught up in street violence, to know there could be an alternate path away from revenge that would still feel like true justice to them. I’m also glad to see our film be used to illustrate the potential of restorative justice in criminal justice reform and spark change in how we treat victims, their families, and offenders.
This legislative screening has energized us to expand on the restorative justice resources we offer on our website – not only for legislative advocacy but for schools, criminal justice settings, faith-based organizations, and community groups.