When it comes to justice, compassion and accountability are not mutually exclusive

Elaine Gravatte

Elaine Gravatte (LL '12) senior vice president, operations, DD Williamson

Leadership Louisville 2012 program day at Metro Corrections

I don’t spend much time in my day-to-day life thinking about our justice system. Until recently, I was ignorant of much of the workings of our Department of Corrections as well as the work being done to change how we approach “corrections” in Louisville. In January, Leadership Louisville exposed our group to the interworkings of Metro Corrections and presented us with local supporters of Restorative Justice.

During our tour of Metro Corrections, I was struck by waves of resignation and defensiveness from the inmates; expressions of respect and humanity from Metro Corrections staff; and the combination of pride and frustration from the Director.

I found it most difficult to observe inmates behind bars and glass, held in common rooms with up to 30 people in an area. I didn’t know where to look, how to engage with the eyes looking back at me. Although the facility was very clean and under good control, I was overwhelmed by the number of people – cell after cell of humanity confined to very basic living conditions.

I was shocked by many of the statistics given – that a facility built to house 1,793 individuals averages 1,992 per day and that it costs $65 to house an inmate per day. In other words, we could pay for a 4-year degree for less than it costs us to incarcerate one inmate for one year. With budget shortfalls and as a country with one of the highest incarceration rates in the developed world, clearly there are changes that must be made.

Next we discussed one such change that is in its infancy in Louisville. We were joined by a panel of legal and political professionals who are working to pilot a program known as restorative justice for juveniles in Louisville.

Restorative justice defines crime as a violation of people and relationships, and focuses justice on making things right with victims of the crime. In practice it takes more-up front work than arrest and incarceration – the police have to determine whether a young offender is receptive to the process, all parties must agree to participate and everyone has to arrange for supporters they might need. However, initial results are very positive – when those who have committed a crime are forced to face those who were harmed and offer up some repair, reality sets in and the youth may choose a different path going forward.

The program has been proven in systems elsewhere to dramatically reduce recidivism – in New Zealand where the program has been in place the longest, arrest rates were reduced by more than half. The participants made the distinction this way – we might apply justice differently for “those we are afraid of than for those we are simply mad at.” This principle resonates with me. Others might be fearful that we would become too soft on crime with such programs in place; but for some, facing the reality of your actions can be much more difficult than paying dues to society as it is traditionally done.

I came away from this program day with a sense of hope that restorative justice may turn the tide for young people who might otherwise be just one of those faces behind the glass.

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One thought on “When it comes to justice, compassion and accountability are not mutually exclusive

  1. Elaine,
    Wonderful article! FYI, I linked it to the Compassionate Louisville facebook page in case you want to see it there and check out that page.

    Tom Williams

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