I spent the better parts of 2017 and 2018 working on what turned out to be There is a Balm in Huntsville. It tells the story of a misguided young man who, after killing two people in a drunk-driving wreck, received a forty-year prison sentence. He experienced transformation during imprisonment not because he decided to rehab his life, as if it was a do-it-yourself solo job. Through a gradual process accentuated by encounters he had with surviving victim family members, and other victims of crime, his healing was the direct result of face-to-face encounters with those deeply and innocently wounded by the ravages of his and other crimes.
State-sponsored retributive justice is a bedrock of modern Western society as understood in the colloquial phrase “You do the crime, you do the time.” Societal order and expectations are positively shaped by laws and corresponding punishments of their violations. In retributive justice theory, the state is the principal victim and consequent administrator of punishment.
Restorative justice—distinct from retributive justice—goes back to traditions that pre-date modern Western societies. Its goal is to restore the relationships damaged by crime and sustain the community where both victim and offender reside (usually the case). In restorative justice theory, the person violated is the principal victim, not the state. Face-to-face encounters between victim and offender aim to match victim needs and offender responsibilities as concerns confession, apology, information, restitution, reconciliation, and future security.
In restorative justice practice, offenders take responsibility for their crimes by acknowledging their debt to their victims and by paying them back, if possible, in concrete ways. A grade school teacher, for example, utilizes a restorative practice when she has two of her students, previously fighting, sit down face to face to work out their differences instead of sending them to the principal’s office for mandatory discipline.
A restorative approach is not applicable to all situations of crime victimization. Situations of sexual abuse, especially, are not suited to face-to-face encounters. Surrogate meetings, where victims encounter offenders—offenders of similar crimes but not the offender(s) in their particular case—are effective vehicles to positively impact both parties.
Two important points: 1) Many people mistakenly think that forgiveness is necessarily part of a restorative justice process. It’s a crime victim’s prerogative whether or not to offer forgiveness. 2) Restorative and retributive justice approaches are not mutually exclusive. They can work together.
The Texas criminal justice system was the first in the nation to offer a restorative approach for victims of violent crime—its program starting via profoundly unique circumstances in the early 1990s. A woman by the name of Cathy Phillips wanted to meet with the imprisoned killer of her daughter. She didn’t know the man but wanted to tell him face to face what her daughter meant to her and what his actions did her family. Anthony Yanez was sentenced to life without possibility of parole for the brutal kidnapping, rape, and murder of Brenda Phillips. Most of Phillips’s friends told her she was crazy, but she was undeterred. As there was no official means by which to pursue her desire, Phillips eventually appealed directly to Texas governor Ann Richards. Richards had previously appointed the first crime victim, Ellen Halbert, to the powerful Texas Board of Criminal Justice and Halbert’s advocacy led to Phillips having her day across the table from Yanez. The meeting, with a trained mediator present, allowed Phillips to unburden a part of her soul. It wasn’t about forgiveness or reconciliation—it was about honesty and disclosure: This is what you did to my family and you need to hear me out. The meeting occurred in 1991. Yanez offered an apology and Cathy Phillips said she felt better after the meeting, with some of her questions answered. She no longer had to play the “What you don’t know will drive you crazy” game.
After Phillips’s encounter with Yanez, Halbert helped direct funding to the victim services unit of Texas’s criminal justice system and a victim-offender dialogue program was created and made available to victims of violent crime in 1993, the first of its kind in the nation. To date, more than thirty other state criminal justice systems have followed suit.
Balm tells its story in narrative fashion, the specific story of the 1996 wreck fitting into the larger story of Texas’s foray into state-sponsored restorative justice practices. My goal is to reveal the life-changing and -enhancing practices of restorative justice. Before I delved into this project, like many, I was only vaguely aware of restorative justice practices. This book has exposed many to its healing ways.
Not all restorative practices require face-to-face interaction between an offender and a crime victim. Restorative practices are not for everyone, but those who have benefitted from them say that restorative practices fill holes left by the retributive system.
I’ll be spending chunks of time in the next year or so working on a new restorative justice book. To be written in the same style and spirit of Balm, it will focus on the incredible healing journeys experienced by two crime victims.
T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Austin City Lutherans (ACL), the social ministry expression of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”
I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”