Can we pause? How might the Ray Rice situation inform justice reform?

Like most of the country this week, I too was shocked and appalled upon seeing the footage of the domestic violence situation between Ray Rice and his now wife, Janay. After uttering a few choice expletives, followed by a bit of name calling, I then paused – and took a deep breath. After all, I am a former defense attorney, and a former civil rights advocate, it wouldn’t be right for me to so quickly join in the negative banter. Would it? But the video was so raw, it’s as if I could feel the pain myself!

My training, however, and especially my recent work in juvenile system reform cautions me to refrain from fast reactions and at least attempt to get a more complete understanding. But there’s a video!!!

But if I’m not willing to at least be interested in the rest of the story, what does this mean for my efforts to influence a more effective response to juvenile offending? Then I remembered one of my favorite books “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz that recommends that we not make assumptions. I have interpreted this to mean that I authentically should seek to understand rather than react.

Channeling this agreement that I have made with myself, I thought of some questions I might want to ask before jumping on the “lock him up and throw away the key” bandwagon. I would like to know more about Ray Rice’s background, as well as that of his wife. Did he grow up in a home where he witnessed or was a victim of domestic violence? Has he suffered a brain injury or other physical damage that could explain such an outburst of aggression? Was there a severe childhood emotional trauma that was somehow triggered? And for his wife – what has occurred in her life and her background such that she has made a decision to stay in such a difficult situation?

It is human nature I suppose to react, to judge and seek punishment. But as an advocate for justice reform, especially for youth, I have learned that the more appropriate response is to pause and take time to gather more comprehensive information, rathering than focusing solely on the offense. And then to seek effective resolution.

I am not recommending this lightly. Domestic violence is an issue of extreme personal nature to me. Just a few years ago a beloved family member was murdered by her husband who then killed himself. She had a PhD in business, was a college professor at a prominent university, and was a beautiful person inside and out. And yes, when I learned of her murder, I was baffled. I did not want to believe that someone so strong, independent and successful could have intentionally remained in a harmful situation. But I was wrong.

In trying to make sense of my relative’s death, I learned more information about her husband. He had been a child of trauma, and that emotional harm likely had not been appropriately addressed. He managed to get a college degree and a graduate degree, but scholastic achievement without emotional healing was not enough.

I am not excusing what happened to my loved one or to Janay, but I am seeking clarity so that I can process more effectively. I’m not a proponent of a free pass, especially for violent acts, but I am an advocate for problem resolution. Bad actions warrant consequences. But I believe that they should be appropriate and focused not only on accountability, but also promoting rehabilitation.

In Ray’s case, I might suggest that he undergo serious therapy, perhaps have a brain scan to discern whether there is a physiological injury that requires healing, and also that he volunteer to work in a crisis center for domestic violence and participate in a restorative justice process. He should engage in activities that could help him truly appreciate and hopefully learn from his mistake. I don’t see what jail would help, and I can’t appreciate why he should be suspended from his career forever? Perhaps that’s because I’m a believer in forgiveness. But also because I believe in what works. Justice in my opinion dictates a fair and just result, not necessarily a harmful one.

And if we truly want to engage in a conversation to better understand and try to resolve domestic violence, we will need to be honest about our value system as a country. We must confront the awful statistics, and we must acknowledge that it’s never just about one bad actor. Perhaps we should just pause and look for our lessons?

Share your comments here to engage in a healthy dialogue.

Tanya Washington is a social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq

7 thoughts on “Can we pause? How might the Ray Rice situation inform justice reform?

  1. Great piece! I particularly liked your suggestion that maybe Rice would benefit from “…a restorative justice process.” Far too often we only think of youth when we consider responses to crime and violence that involve restorative justice programming. The need for personal forgiveness and transformation is not the exclusive domain of young people. Anyone — including pro athletes — can benefit from a restorative justice experience that seeks to repair harm and rebuild those relationships damaged by violence.


  2. What a great post. I also understand where you stand because I too am a child who went through seeing this prior to my mom leaving the situation. I know that she loved my dad right up until his death a couple of years ago although she had not been with him since 1979. I know some of the things that lead him to do what he did but never fully understood it and no one really discussed it after we left him. So, when I get disturbed by people jumping to conclusions about the wife in this situation and saying things like she has no self respect or she must be in it only for the money, I am not disturbed because I am in any way defending the actions of Ray Rice (because I am not). I am disturbed for the same reasons you state, unless you have been in that situation, you should pause before making assumptions and calling names in reference to the victim ( or even addressing the cause of the violence in the first place). Everyone wants to be quick jump on a bandwagon today, but no one will care next week about whats going on in that household for the remainder of that relationship


    • Thanks for your reply. It’s a complicated issue that requires a nuanced response. Concerning the broader justice reform topic, I apply the same logic to youth misbehavior. Start by asking questions instead of rushing to judge and resorting to locking someone up. We are a diverse and talented society, and we should be able to be creative with the consequences.


  3. I agree with you on so many points. And just reflecting on my work with school-age children, there are a multitude of factors that shape them. But what no one seems to be commenting on is how the expectations of the NFL are the polar opposite of what is expected in society; specifically, the amount of aggression that is praised on the field. What is the NFL doing to address the limits and boundaries of that aggression when the game is over? What is their responsibility in providing programs to address control and appropriate application of that aggression? Their knee-jerk responses are a clear indication that they have no idea what to do. No easy answers.


    • Absolutely! The NFL absolutely should be looking at this issue more broadly so that they can identify ways to address. The brain trauma is real though — head injuries such as those in the NFL can manifest themselves as extreme aggression. So suspension and prosecution while understandable are not going to get to the root of the problem. I want people to start to be about solutions, not just pointing fingers. Thanks for your comment!


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