“If I hold them in their humanity, then I hold them accountable,” said Jannet Conners about the men who murdered her son.
Conners is one of the mothers featured in “Circle Up,” a documentary about restorative justice. The goals of restorative justice include healing for the victims and rehabilitation for the offenders so they do not hurt others, according to the documentary.
Restorative justice is about love and positivity, about connecting with others and oneself to be able to move forward. Conners participated in the first victim-offender dialogue in Massachusetts, according to the documentary.
“Circle Up” was presented along with an expert panel at Westminster College Wednesday in Malouf 201.
Heather Batchelor, an education professor, introduced the documentary and conducted the panel.
“We need to rethink our priorities and who we want to protect,” she said. “Real accountability can be transformative for both [the victim and offender].”
Years after Conners had a facilitated discussion with the man in prison for killing her son, she received a letter in the mail from him.
“I’m a better person in 2010 than I was in 2001,” he said. “A lot of that can be attributed to you.”
This man, referred to as AJ in the documentary, built a relationship with Conners after his sentence ended.
“Jannet, to me, is a guardian angel,” he said.
Conners and two other mothers are tasked with creating a preventative circle at a local high school, working with students who have lost loved ones.
“Punishment is imposed,” Conners said. “Accountability comes from the heart and soul.”
Clarissa Turner lost her son, Marquis, and tells the circle the day she forgave the men who killed him was the day she set herself free.
“Forgiveness is so powerful,” she said.
Restorative justice is a principle that started in indigenous communities, the documentary and panelists both said. One path to restorative justice involves circles that allow each person to speak and are focused on problem-solving and community-building.
One of the panelists, Judge William Thorne, served as a tribal and state judge. He said prisons are not justice.
“Too often we get lost in the idea of punishment,” he said. “We forget that what we really need to do is heal.”
A circle is just the first piece of restorative justice, Thorne said.
“Restorative justice is earning your way back,” he said. “The first step is understanding the pain you’ve caused.”
Another panelist, Mary Freeman, experienced restorative justice when her son stole political signs and was able to participate in a program with those he hurt. Freeman said the program was very humane and stressed personal responsibility.
“Circles are a wonderful way to explore other points of view,” she said. “The more you do circle, the better listener you become. You grow as a person during circle.”
Freeman said her son worked with the victims to decide what justice looked like, and he repaired the harm through a film for local schools. Her son would not have the successful life he has now if he had a criminal record rather than that positive experience, Freeman said.
“Fairness is not branding a child for the rest of his life,” she said. “Fairness is giving a young person an opportunity to make amends.”
The third panelist, Beth Allen, experienced restorative justice from the other perspective when a 16-year-old driver hit and killed her husband as they were riding bikes on Father’s Day weekend.
“This young man has the potential of a life of doing good, and making good out of a bad situation,” she said.
Instead of hiring a lawyer, Allen worked with the family and with the court to find justice.
“Justice was served,” Allen said. “I deserve to be treated fairly, and I was. I am still connected [to the family] in some way.”
Lia Knox-Hershey, a junior with a custom major in systemic and structural violence, said she wants to apply what she learned about restorative justice to her work with the Salt Lake Peer Court.
“The current response is loyalty to uphold structures of the nation-state rather than community safety,” she said.