Is justice the same as punishment? Meditations on the restorative power of compassion

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Lately I’ve been thinking about justice and accountability. When someone in my life or community has done something wrong, where do we go and what do we do. Do we banish them? How do we forgive them? How do we let them back in? I find myself not knowing what to do or think, so I don’t do anything. Pretend they don’t exist. Don’t say hi on the sidewalk. Watch them eat by themselves. Don’t allow a way for re-entry. The first instinct is to be punitive because that’s the norm, but that has never felt right. It feels very conflicting and makes me anxious. How productive is shaming? Is it justice or just punishment?

Over the past couple of years, I have gotten more involved in criminal justice. I took a class at the Berkshire prison, now tutor at the prison and am starting a semester project on juvenile diversion. Before the class started, I was very nervous because I didn’t know what to expect. This nervousness led me to start off the class with a wall and a gap between myself and my incarcerated classmates. Once I started to develop a relationship with my classmates, I began to recognize the stigmas that society had buried deep within me that made me anxious about the experience. As I delved deeper into the incarceral system, I saw similarities in the way that we treat wrongdoers in the Williams community and the way society treats formally incarcerated folks. 

At Williams, we will not hesitate to dismantle and engage with the destructive and dangerous effect of incarceration in America. How difficult re-entry is. How the stigma of their mistake will follow them through their lives. But I’ve realized these are the same questions I’ve had alongside my peers in the Williams community. We will have these discussions in class about the ill-effects of incarceration and use similar condemning rhetoric to shame our peers. In the incarceral system, folks are prevented from interacting with others who have been incarcerated with them. With wrongdoers at Williams, we alienate people from support systems, like friend groups or extracurriculars. There’s always a sense of tension in interpersonal interactions. We judge a person who comes in with a resume and criminal past. We question looking someone in the eye on the sidewalk. We are always thinking about what they’ve done wrong. No matter what they do, they will never be as human in the community’s eyes as before their wrongdoing. People are given their punishment but what does justice look like? And how do we balance justice, accountability and compassion? 

A few weeks ago, I spoke about this topic in a Dvar Torah at Shabbat dinner. In that week’s Torah reading, Parshat Mishpatim, we are given a long list of laws and rules to follow. Some say you should be put to death for certain actions, some say one who strikes one’s mother or father shall be put to death. But others talk about this accountability and justice. What does justice look like? When you’ve dug a hole, and a person’s ox falls inside, you, the hole digger, are responsible and pay restitution. There is a mechanism in the law for justice. There is accountability. But also in this parsha, there are rules that acknowledge empathy. One states, “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” or “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back.” It makes me wonder, can we bring in this empathy for strangers and compassion for enemies in our community? What does justice look like when it’s not shunning?

Compassion and empathy are not just “being nice” to those who have done wrong, but also recognizing that I, you, also do wrong and make mistakes and will continue to make mistakes. We need compassion in order to put the problem in front of us, not between us. Creating tools to have conversation. Being compassionate is being ready to sit next to someone and not across from them. 

Justice with compassion is restorative. For those who are unfamiliar, restorative justice is a system of criminal justice which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. It’s a long and hard process and we don’t deny what someone did was wrong. Apology and restoration are very individualized and it takes honest and vulnerable conversations about what healing looks like. But it’s important, and even though I ask a lot of questions here and don’t provide many answers, keeping the door open for critical and reflective conversations about how we handle justice and compassion in our own community is a step in the right direction. 

Morgan Whaley ’20 is an Arabic Studies major and public health concentrator from Shaker Heights, Ohio.