Accountability versus punishment: Is there a role for restorative justice in juvenile cases such as Sayreville?

My recent post concerning the events in Sayreville, New Jersey in which seven high school football players are accused of hazing/abusing other players apparently hit a nerve. Although I am capable of seeing multiple sides of a situation and am open to, and even welcoming of, opposing point of views, I was surprised at how quickly some of the responses got personal. I do not live in New Jersey, nor do I have any personal attachments to the circumstances. I simply believe that in a civil and democratic society, community members should allow the judicial process an opportunity to operate before turning themselves into prosecutor, judge and jury based on what is reported in the news. I believe this all the more strongly when young people are involved. And yet simply by proposing that the accused youth should have their fate determined by a juvenile court, rather than an adult court, some people felt obliged to personally attack me.

Several individuals thought it appropriate to label the kids “criminals.” But is it fair to call someone a criminal simply because they are accused of wrongdoing? Does that strike anyone else as somewhat odd and out of place in a country that holds itself out to the world as the representative of democracy? And what ever happened to the doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty?”

In fairness, in one recent Twitter encounter I did experience an interesting and appropriate exchange which underscored for me the value of social media. It concerned a question of what consequences might be appropriate if it turned out that the accusations were true. To the individual who interacted with me on this topic I say “thank you.” Although I have no idea if I swayed that person’s opinion, I appreciated the opportunity for an open and respectful discourse.

In addition to advocating that this matter remain in a juvenile court, if the youth are found responsible for the actions they are accused of, I offered the idea that restorative justice be considered. I have already gone on record acknowledging the harm that has likely been caused based on the allegations, as well as the need for corrective action. The question is, what should that correction action look like? Is there a way to hold those responsible accountable, teach them the errors of their behaviors and get them back on track? Do we as a society need a pound of their flesh as payback for their behavior? Do we need to see them suffer? Or as responsible adults can we look for a better solution?

In the event these young men are found culpable (although I choose to remain neutral on this point until more facts are revealed) if a correctional institution is the consequence, they will come out at the other end undereducated, with a felony record that will interfere with them being employed, and based on the allegations perhaps bearing the label of sex offender – for life. Again I wonder: is this the outcome we want for young people who arguably are great candidates for being positively changed? Or do we want them to understand the harm that was caused, to be held accountable and taught a better way, and perhaps grow up to become mature adults who can contribute to society? After all, as pointed out in an editorial appearing in the New Jersey paper the Star-Ledger “we created this separate [juvenile] system because while the young brain can be capable of monstrous violence, it’s a more flexible creature.”

A restorative justice option actually focuses on the needs of the victims and the involved community in addition to dealing with the conduct of the accused. It emphasizes addressing and repairing the harm as opposed to simply punishing the offender. For youth, it is especially worthwhile as it allows for them to accept responsibility for their actions and make amends rather than maintaining innocence — this in and of itself is an important component of rehabilitation and an important character trait to instill.

The harsher option (jail time) may be the stiffer punishment and make many onlookers feel more satisfied, but a restorative justice alternative is likely more effective and beneficial to society and all involved.

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Share your thoughts at

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at

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

Implications of Ferguson and other tragic incidents

In July our country was shocked to hear of the fate of Eric Garner, an African American man in Staten Island, New York who was choked to death by a police officer for an unexplained reason. In August a similar outcome for an African American male teenager (Michael Brown) who was unarmed and yet shot 6 times — an incident which sparked community outrage. In Ohio at a Walmart another deadly incident occurred during the same time period – this time with a bit less fanfare. 22-year-old John Crawford III (also an African American male) was shot in the back while shopping and talking on a cell phone because of a toy pellet gun he had in his possession that he planned to purchase from the toy department that day. In Seattle, a 26-year-old African American man (Raymond Wilford) was pepper-sprayed by mall security guards as he walked through a parking lot when security guards mistook him for a trouble-maker (ignoring bystanders telling them that they had the wrong man). I could go on and on as these tragic incidents are unfortunately growing in number with many never reaching national media outlets. What’s more unsettling is that typically they are hard to resolve due to contradictory versions of the facts that more often than not get interpreted in favor of the shooters who justify their actions with such descriptions as “he reached for my gun,” or “he took an aggressive step towards me,” or “I was standing my ground.” I doubt that these explanations pass muster to most, but rather ring hollow and are hard to accept. Often we attempt to get to the root cause of such matters by sorting through a complicated set of questions nearly impossible to get accurate answers to: What caused the confrontation, was a crime committed, was there a perceived or actual threat, why did law enforcement (or citizen) respond with such force? More importantly, it seems that the idea of perceptions in general could benefit from more consideration.

Perceptions of a situation drive actions and responses and unless all parties sense a willingness to engage in seeking solutions, we end up at a crossroads. Can these distressing situations be a catalyst for a healthy discourse? I am curious about the theme that appears to be emerging concerning the perceptions that law enforcement and others may have about young males of color. Is it time to openly inquire whether law enforcement inherently feel threatened when confronting young men of color and as a result fear harm such that they consider themselves justified in using aggressive tactics or deadly force? I also wonder about the ongoing impact of such hostility on communities and whether there now exists a natural perception of bias by law enforcement that undermines expectations for a fair and just resolution? Another important area we should not lose sight of is the ongoing negative impact on the hearts and minds of young people (especially youth of color). This next generation of youth who on one hand are growing up in a post-civil rights time period with greater expectations of equality than in the 1960’s, but on the other hand experience similar mistreatment without understanding why.

The lingering trauma on communities of color when African American males such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and even Trayvon Martin are harmed without rationale is significant. It’s not unlike the trauma experienced by victims of hate crimes and the communities who share their characteristics who have a hard time making sense of mistreatment when it seems to be based solely on their race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation, rather than their actions. The entire community is affected, parents and children alike, wondering what can help them avoid being a target, yet knowing full well that there is little they can do.

Similar to the civil rights era, in Ferguson people and communities took to the streets to demonstrate their dissatisfaction and anger concerning the over-aggression by law enforcement towards the Black community and the lack of a thoughtful or appropriate response. While on some level I can appreciate such a reaction, I’m left asking myself is it enough or could we be doing more to work towards solutions? What’s the ultimate point of protest if it’s not accompanied by an action plan? We’ve all heard the saying “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result.” Does that mean that our communities are insane to continue accepting such treatment without adequate resolution, or perhaps we have gotten somewhat anesthetized to the ongoing pain?

When communities feel disempowered, disenfranchised and disconnected as a result of their perceptions of bias and indifference on the part of government officials, what is left to do other than take to the streets to at least demonstrate discontent? I believe that in order to make a change we will need to raise the bar. In addition to protesting, it’s time to come together to try to better understand why this keeps happening, why youth of color seem to be considered inherently dangerous and less valued? We must work together to begin to outline some potential solutions. Perhaps we should start conversations with law enforcement about cultural competency and safe responses, followed by education and training – of law enforcement as well as our youth? If we are looking for a different result, one that goes beyond empty excuses, I think it’s time that we try something new – an approach that hopefully will transform the hearts and minds of those in authority who are in a position to alter the fate of an unarmed person in an instant. Just maybe if we can speak from one voice interested in both safety and equity in our communities, we will be able to influence those with the power to find the courage to choose another path.

What do you think? What suggestions do you have to strengthen our communities to more effectively steer this conversation in a positive direction and one that is focused on resolutions? It is clear to me that too many young men of color are in harm’s way and that a community conversation is long overdue. How can we work together to reverse this trend?

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

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq