Bringing Emotional Narrative to a Courthouse


by Genevieve Hunt

Last night filmmaker Julie Mallozzi, our film subjects Janet Connors and Clarissa Turner, and I presented a screening discussion of CIRCLE UP at the Social Law Library in Boston’s John Adams Courthouse before an audience of judges, lawyers and other court professionals. As we walked through the hushed library past classical wood friezes and shelves filled with heavy, leather-bound law books, I remembered a scene in CIRCLE UP where Janet remarks that she felt her son’s life didn’t matter at all in the courtroom – that the that the whole trial process seemed to her driven by the prosecutor, the state, and the defendant. Would this audience of judges and lawyers be more sympathetic to the victim families tonight?

My worries were unfounded as the audience was hushed and attentive, passing tissues as Janet recounted the details of her son’s murder and Clarissa tearfully remembered the moment she spontaneously forgave her son’s murderers in court. During the panel discussion, Janet and Clarissa held the audience spellbound as they shared their journey through grief and anger to forgiveness and healing after the brutal murders of their sons. They spoke movingly about the transformative power of forgiveness and the desire to help create a positive way for harm-doers to show accountability and return to their community. Janet and Clarissa stressed that their desire to spare other families from the pain of losing a child motivated them to continue sharing their story and helping young people find ways to turn away from revenge violence. 

Audience members were deeply appreciative of Janet and Clarissa’s sharing of their emotional journey and asked questions about the restorative justice experience. One audience member thoughtfully asked if there was any communication with the families of harm-doers; both Janet and Clarissa spoke about the sorrow and pain shared by victim and defendant families. The panel discussion ended on a positive note when a psychiatrist from McLean Hospitalsaid he would like to share the film with his patients because"Forgiveness can't be prescribed but it's a wonderful medicine."

 As we left the screening, I reflected on how much more powerfully film conveys the emotional impact of a court trial than a court transcript or a newspaper story. It offers court professionals a way to think about the consequences of traditional justice processes and begin to consider how bringing victims and harm-doers face-to-face in a restorative justice setting may serve both sides more effectively. 

 We have had a lot of interest from the legal community in CIRCLE UP. As more states and municipalities grapple with criminal justice reform and ways to reduce the prison population, we’ve gotten more requests for screenings from state legislators and law schools around the country (including Harvard, Drexel and New York Law School). We hope to do more these kinds of screenings and discussions about the role that forgiveness and personal accountability can play in reducing recidivism and increasing healing among crime victims and their communities.

Thank you to Social Law Library Executive Director Robert Brink for bringing this emotional narrative inside a courthouse!

"Just doing your time doesn't mean you're sorry"

Last week inmates of Philadelphia’s Graterford Prison who have completed the not-so-coincidentally named Let’s Circle Up restorative justice program screened CIRCLE UP in their monthly alumni gathering. This is exactly the kind of setting in which we’re most excited to share the film!

The inmates talked about how they can apply the lessons of the film in their own lives and used it to reflect on both times they have harmed others and times they experienced harm. Facilitator Anthony Marqusee shared notes from their amazing revelations :

  • “Just doing your time doesn't mean you're sorry. Made me think, what am I doing to show it in my situation?”

  • “You can forgive someone and it can still hurt.”

  • “It seemed like part of Janet's pain regarding those who did not admit guilt actually came from her empathy because she knew those who were not admitting it couldn't move forward.”

  • The film highlighted the “dilemma of fighting a case but not wanting to have it seem like denying accountability. In my case, I went back to court to challenge my illegal sentence because I wanted the sentences for two charges to run concurrently, not consecutively. I thought it was just a legal issue and was surprised when the DA dragged the victim back into court. I had to make sure clarify to them that it was about the sentence, not guilt, and that I did not want them to think I was denying my guilt.”

  • About the "I'm sorry" "I know" interaction between Janet and AJ: "I long to hear that and be that way towards others who hurt me."

  • “It takes guts to sit with someone who caused you harm.”

  • “I liked how the mothers and sisters were trying to stop the domino effect, trying to help younger people.”

  • “(I) valued the fact that the VOD didn't ‘take’ right away for AJ – it was a few years before it sunk in. Showed that we can't measure restorative justice processes by what happens the next day. The gift may be a seed that was planted that sprouts much later.”

  • “I imagine what my life could have been like if I had had this process or knowledge as a teenager when I was starting to get drawn in to destructive activities.”

Impacting Legislation

MA Statehouse.jpg

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.

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  From left to right: Rep. Garballey, Janet Connors, DA Marian Ryan, and Julie Mallozzi

From left to right: Rep. Garballey, Janet Connors, DA Marian Ryan, and Julie Mallozzi

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.”

After you see this film, you will get the sense of how restorative justice changes people and there is no better way to spend our time.
— DA Marian Ryan to the MA statehouse audience

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.

There is so much injustice around race and class and this is our chance to do something about it.
— Janet Connors, CIRCLE UP subject

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. 

Rep. Garballey talks with Janet Connors

Rep. Garballey talks with Janet Connors

Chicago, Philly and Beyond


A flurry of screenings have just been scheduled.  Here in Boston, CIRCLE UP will screen at the Statehouse for legislators and their staff as they debate criminal justice reform; at the Social Law Library for judges, prosecutors, and other legal folks; at Suffolk University for students and the general public; and at the Museum of Fine Arts for art-lovers and more.

In March we're traveling with the film to Chicago for the Peace on Earth Film Festival, to Madison for a screening hosted by Dane County Time Bank, and to Pennsylvania for the Philadelphia Restorative Justice Conference and the Advoz Mediation and Restorative Practices at Penn Cinema in Lititz.

Just as it warms up in April, we'll be heading to Cape Code for a morning with the Sisterhood at Cape Cod Synagogue's Annual Interfaith Event co-sponsored by Church Women United and Grandmothers Against Gun Violence.

You can see the latest postings here or request a screening at your organization here!