Mercy in Justice

Lady JusticeJustice has been on my mind for a long time.

Our older daughter is a lawyer who wants to be a prosecutor. She is getting a daily dose of the balance and big picture prosecutors must cultivate when working in the justice system. In some of her job interviews, the question, “What do you think justice is?” was specifically asked, and she had to articulate what she has observed and internalized as working justice. For her, it boiled down to trying to find the fairest and most restorative path for people through the justice system. Even in misdemeanor situations, she thinks long and hard about the balance between what her options are under the law, and what will be the most constructive for the person sitting in front of her.

I volunteer with a nonprofit (Seedling Foundation) that pairs community mentors with children who are challenged by parental incarceration. Most of those parents are in prison for non-violent offenses but are serving mandatory terms long enough to shatter their family structure. Some are minor drug offenses or even traffic violations that are exacerbated by their immigration status. The sentence for a misdemeanor may even be limited to a fine or a very short jail time, but the arrest results in deportation and the consequences are the same. Mommy or Daddy is gone and the family can disintegrate.

I have also volunteered with and still support a nonprofit (Texas Advocacy Project) that provides free legal services to the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

These groups of people can easily overlap. In either scenario, however, it is the children whose lives are often in chaos and turmoil for years, regardless of whether the abuser or convicted parent is Dad or Mom. Yes, women can also be abusive and commit domestic violence. The percentage is less, but it exists.

Law BooksThis leads me to the question of justice for the children. Not just the children who are passive victims of their parents’ poor choices, but also the children who react to those circumstances by committing a crime of their own.

Read this Ted Talk from Lawyer Bryan Stephenson and if you are paying attention, you will see how the threads can weave together to doom our young people.

If you have children, think about them at 16 or even 17. Did you think of them as adults? Did you treat them as adults? And yet, in some states, they can be convicted as adults and even put to death. Twenty-two individuals were executed between 1985 and 2003 for crimes committed as juveniles aged 16 and 17.

Think of yourself at that age. Were you an adult?

There are some individuals who are psychopathic and definitely need to be kept away from general society, but the percentage is small.  We should reserve our “life in prison” or mental institution sentences for these people, but keep the door open to rehabilitation and hope for the great majority who just made a mistake or even a series of mistakes.  When I think of myself at 16-18, I was not the same person I became even one short decade later.

What if I had made a stupid choice or mistake and derailed what has become a good, productive life that benefits thousands of other people? What if the ripple effect of my life that manifests itself in our daughters, who have chosen careers that serve others (Attorney and RN), never came to pass? The potential waste is incalculable and it so easily could have happened.

We like to attribute our success, happiness, and productivity to our hard work and intellect, but I submit that it often seems to be luck of the draw. Simply being a particular race or ethnicity, the lack of education and other even less definable attributes can result in very different consequences for the same occurrence.

Face it, sometimes we were just plain lucky that a situation we got ourselves into when we were young didn’t go wrong.

This is where mercy within the justice system is important. This is where, as a society, we can choose to refuse to categorize with a broad brush. We can give people chances to turn their lives around. It can be done most of the time, but it will not be done in a system where the cards are stacked against our children.

And it cannot be done in a system that kills them before they even get a chance to try.

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