A Helping of Healing

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It’s probably safe to say that most people would recoil at the suggestion that they spend time with hardened criminals and the families of their victims. Not Janine Geske. A former justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, she opted after five years on the high court bench to pursue her true passion: restorative justice, with its capacity for bringing healing to victims of crime–and often to offenders as well.

The term “restorative justice,” or RJ, describes a number of processes that focus on repairing the harm caused by crime. It has a forward-looking orientation that eschews looking at punishment in isolation of both victim and community needs. One facet of RJ is the bringing together of victims and offenders for a dialogue that fosters the emotional healing process.

The simple fact is, RJ works. Even some big-city district attorneys have started incorporating it into their work. Today, it is being used in some way in every state in the U.S., as well as in jurisdictions around the world, including South America, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

Crucial Conversations

Now a distinguished professor of law at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Geske teaches a popular class on RJ. She has also run an RJ program at the maximum security prison in Green Bay, Wis., for the last eight years. On a regular basis, she brings groups of crime victims to the facility to describe–in great detail–what violent crime does to one’s sense of self, to one’s family and, in a very real way, to one’s soul.

“The beauty of a victim/offender dialogue is that it is a safe environment for difficult conversations,” Geske says. “Because of the intensity of the human emotions involved, the facilitator needs to design a process that allows individuals to converse about some raw human emotions.

“I believe,” Geske says, “that because of the intense spiritual nature of this work, we frequently see wondrous surprises occurring that lead to new understanding and healing between the parties.”

Here’s how Geske describes a recent RJ meeting she facilitated:

“Two adult sisters’ father had been killed in an armed robbery. He was a delivery man for a restaurant. The offender called the restaurant and had him drive to a house where no one was home. The offender was hiding in the bushes where, he says, his gun went off. He also said he had a friend call 911 after the shooting, a claim that was later corroborated. (He ultimately pleaded guilty to a charge of second-degree murder and to armed robbery.)

“Six years after the crime occurred, the sisters decided they would like to sit down with the offender, a decision they described as part of their ‘faith journey,’ adding that they were ready to entertain the possibility that the offender’s gun had really gone off accidentally.

“Eventually, they had the meeting at Green Bay prison,” Geske continues. “There, the sisters took about an hour to describe their father–the kind of person he was and the relationships he had with his daughters and with his grandchild. They also described his relationship with his own parents, with whom he was very close.

“They then took him through the horrible night of [their father’s] death and the aftermath of hearing he had been murdered. They talked about their inability to sleep normally. Both slept with their lights on. And they described the incredible grief of their father’s parents, explaining that their grandfather died on the one-year anniversary of his son’s death.”

According to Geske, the sisters still had two critical questions that they were hoping would be answered. The first concerned how their father died; they wondered whether he struggled with his assailant. Neither believed he would have. The offender confirmed that, telling them their father did not resist in any way.

They also wanted to know whether after being shot, he had fallen face down onto the concrete or looking up at the dark sky. To that question, the offender had no answer. The sisters wanted to know more about the offender’s life. “He became a father at 14 years old,” Geske says. “His daughter is now 9. They also wanted to know if he still saw his own mother. He said he did.”

At one point the offender–who doesn’t have to be released for another 37 years–asked one of the sisters what she thought about his sentence. She leaned forward and said, “At the time I first heard it, I thought you deserved it.”

He responded, saying, “I would have, too.”

A coda: After the meeting at the prison, Geske went back to Marquette to teach an evidence class and referred to the case without identifying the victim or the perpetrator. After the class, a student approached her who nonetheless knew about the case. “I was the first officer on the scene,” he said.

Geske asked him if he knew whether the victim was face up or face down. “He was definitely face up,” the officer said.

Geske called the sisters and gave them the answer to their last question. As a testament to the effectiveness of RJ, both sisters now sleep with their lights out.

Steven Keeva, an assistant managing editor, is the auth­or of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfac­tion in the Legal Life.

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