Despite the time that I have spent studying the criminal justice system and its many facets, I realize now that I did not fully appreciate the importance of the context in which any given crime takes place. I recognized that it was a factor, but I didn't realize that it is so important that, if the context were changed, most crime would not happen as it does.
It was in recently studying with Dominic Barter, the chief architect of the Restorative Circles process developed in the shanty towns of Rio de Janeiro that my eyes were opened. (See restorativecircles.org for more information on Dominic's work.) I now see that crime and its context are inseparable bedfellows.
In Dominic's Restorative Circles process, the terms "offender" and "victim" are not used. Instead, he uses the terms "author" and "receiver" because of the complex web of mutuality that violence involves. This was explained by Dominic using the metaphor of a menu.
When you go to a restaurant and order chicken, beef or fish, that is an act of free choice. But you didn't get to choose what was included on the menu. That was decided by actors before and beyond you.
So it is true that the author's act of committing the wrong is the result of his or her free will. That's like choosing the chicken, not the beef. The social context within which the author's actions occur, however, is not a choice the author makes. We learn from our culture how to be violent. Culture provides us with the options from which we choose.
Dominic points out that every Restorative Circle in Brazil today takes place in a context that arises out of 500 years of colonization, and the resulting concentration of extreme wealth on one end of the social spectrum and extreme poverty at the other end. An incident being dealt with in one of Dominic's circles is just the most recent manifestation of this social context. In another context, the violence that exists in Brazil would not exist.
The context does not excuse individual choice; nor is context irrelevant. Three participants are always involved in any event: the author of a given act, the recipient of that act and the local community. For justice to be done, both individual choice and systemic context must be considered and held accountable.
In my most recent OEN article I wrote about Daudi Beverly's trial for his assault upon an elderly woman in a Richmond suburb. In addition to what I wrote then, I will share a few more details about the context that set the stage for Daudi's crime. To begin with, according to Mary, Daudi's mother, he was a premature baby, born somewhat developmentally disabled.
When Daudi was ten, his father was beaten to death during a weekend when Caribbean immigrants and drugs were targeted by the police where they lived. Mary was told that certain officers called such weekends a "Caribbean cruise." Mary describes her former husband as deeply spiritual, and he wore dreadlocks as a symbol of wisdom and honor. That's the context in which he and two other black men were beaten to death that weekend.
Daudi had been close to his father. He turned inward and refused to speak of his father's death. Within a few years, having lost the most important anchor and role model in his life, Daudi dropped out of school.
At age eighteen, Daudi was sexually assaulted by a church leader during a weekend outing. Mary was devastated. She had hoped the trip would be good for her son. Angry, hurt, and dealing with complex issues beyond his comprehension, Daudi threw a burning wooden penis into the leader's house. He was convicted of arson and joined the league of young black men with criminal records.
A year after the sexual assault, Daudi had his first psychotic episode and was hospitalized in a mental ward. Unable to afford private treatment, he received public mental health services and thereafter was repeatedly institutionalized by order of the officials.
Medications are critical to managing Daudi's illness, but he found it difficult to remember directions or scheduled appointments with his therapist. Mary called repeatedly to help keep him on track. She says this seemed to annoy the mental health agency staff.
Someone at the agency told Mary that because Daudi was an adult, she had no right to his medical information, so she should stop calling. Although he had been institutionalized in mental wards seven times, no one advised Mary that she could be named her son's legal guardian, and thus have a say in his treatment and care.
After he missed several appointments, the agency closed Daudi's file for noncompliance, which cut off his medications. Daudi began to have psychotic spells. It was most likely during one of those psychotic spells that Daudi assaulted the elderly white woman for whom he had done yard work.
Any number of changes in the context in which Daudi's crime occurred, and it would not have happened. That's how important context is. This does not excuse Daudi's acts, or make the crime he committed any less serious. But how can we say he alone was at fault?In fact, there were many decisions made over the course of hundreds of years that set the stage for that fateful day when this terrible crime took place. It was just the most recent manifestation of the larger social context.
Posted on GenuineJustice.com 11-18-10.