So it may surprise some of you that one of our board members has dubbed abolition a hurricane. He explained that hurricanes begin as a number of smaller storms, little squalls really, which come together and build upon each other until they become the raging vortex that we all know. I like that. We never know the effect that our little whisper of wind may have.
Last night, we were certainly up against our equal. With tornadoes sited in the area and rain pouring down, Amy Staples, the chair of the state board, and I drove to David Lipscomb University to do a panel discussion on the death penalty. Of course when we got there, we found that the theatre was on the second floor of the student building and that everyone had been evacuated to the basement. Nevertheless, we did eventually speak, along with Harmon Wray one of the legends of the abolition community in Tennessee and Professor Lee Camp. We all spoke to approximately thirty or forty students who braved the rather heinous weather to attend.
Our discussions ranged over a number of topics, but one of the main concerns expressed was our focus in America on retributive justice. In a nutshell, if someone steals $20 from me, our system may capture that person and even incarcerate him, but he does not have to give my $20 back. In the same way, in speaking about the death penalty, advocates continually claim that the death penalty is “for the victims’ families,” yet families are often neglected. Families have begged to not have the murderer executed and the death sentence has still been sought. As the case goes through the appellate process, families are forced to relive their horrible loss again and again.
Restorative justice provides a different model. A restorative justice system would say that is someone steals $20 from me, they should have to work and pay me the $20 back. This is certainly a simplified explanation, but possibilities of such an approach to violence were similarly discussed. A restorative justice response to murder would include, a lengthy prison term with a meaningful work program for a meaningful wage, a large proportion of which would go to restitution for the victim’s family (obviously not in a direct manner). In fact, public opinion tends to support such a model. While over 60% of people will say that they approve of the death penalty, less than 40% will still support the death penalty when presented with the alternative of life in prison and restitution to victims’ families.
I was surprised and pleased by how thoughtful and prayerful the questions and comments from students following our presentation were. Harmon, who has done hundreds of such forums, said that they were the best that he had ever encountered. The attendees really questioned the way in which our system works, even when we had to start late and there was a tornado outside. Maybe our little discussion was the beginning of a hurricane.
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