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?

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

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq