Finding a voice, making a difference

At a fall presentation I was impressed by a woman deeply harmed by a criminal act who described her journey to healing. Jennifer, a victim who volunteers at Dispute Resolution Center's Peacemaking service in Washtenaw County, spoke about her experience:

I was asked to share a little of my story as a victim who felt a great need to speak to my offender face-to-face, how there wasn't anything formally available in the courts to make that happen, and the events that led to us meeting. Here is my story.

On June 30, 2010, my mom, Penny, was driving home from my sister's when she was hit and killed driving through an intersection. One week later was my first of many trips to Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac. From our first court hearing it was clear that the offender was a very bad kid, from a very dysfunctional family.

The accident was caused by a 15-year-old named "Max" (not his real name), who didn't have a learner's permit, let alone a driver's license. The night of the accident wasn't the first time he had snuck his mom's car out for a joy ride. On this particular night, Max sped down a dirt road, drove through a stop sign and hit my mom's driver's side door dead on. Max urged his friend who was with him to quick run, so they could say the car had been stolen, and not get into trouble. Max ran away to his house and never looked back at my mom or her car that had begun to burn.

We learned in court that Max had previously been picked up by police when he was only 13 and out wandering the streets at 2 a.m. When his mom came to pick him up at the station, she was arrested for drunk driving. We heard how Max was always late or absent from school and his grades reflected that. His dad never came to the courthouse because, at that time, he had five warrants out for his arrest. Just days before trial, Max pled no contest and was given the maximum juvenile sentence. He was to be held until age 19 - a four year sentence. My greatest concern was that the judge would release him sooner, resulting in another tragedy. My grief and pain was so unbearable that I needed to find a way to protect other innocent people from being harmed by this boy and his family. But, what could I do as a victim? I made a vow that I would be present at each of Max's review hearings, ready to speak if I felt he was going to be released. In my heart I wanted to do more, but, what? What could I do?

I decided that I needed to talk to him face-to-face. Then, I would have felt that I had done something to help prevent another tragedy from occurring. I spoke to my victim's advocate who informed me that there's really nothing set up in the courts to make that happen.

A full year into Max's sentence, it was clear he made no progress whatsoever. The court took measures to change this and sent Max to a 7-step rehabilitation program out of the area. Two years into his sentence, he successfully completed the program and for the first time showed noticeable signs of positive change. He apologized, showed signs of remorse, and began to ask for our forgiveness. He was also completing his GED and getting decent grades.

As Max's release date grew closer, my desire to speak to him increased. There are many reasons why I wanted to speak to him, but the main reasons were because:

- I needed him to know who my mom was as a person, and what she meant to our family;

- I needed to see Max as a human being and to answer his plea of forgiveness in a place other than a cold and stressful courtroom; and, finally

- I needed to know that I had done all I was able to somehow prevent another tragedy from occurring.

I made my plea to my advocate who spoke to the prosecutor and judge. They agreed to ask Max and he accepted. In October of 2013, we sat face-to-face in a location outside of the courthouse and finally talked. When I met him up close, I was struck by how very young he was; he was just a kid. The meeting went very well and I felt such a weight lifted from me. I had needed him to hear me, and I believe that he had. I had never wanted my mom's death to be in vain and, as we said our goodbyes, I left feeling hopeful that he got it!

After out meeting, Max continued to show amazing progress. Although as a freshman, he had only been at a 3rd grade reading level, we heard in court that he was taking a college course online and was placed on the Vice-President's List for outstanding academic performance with a 3.7 GPA. Max was considered a miracle at the courthouse and I believe it was due to:

- The judge, who held him accountable for his actions;

- The prosecutor who fought for him not to be tried as an adult; and

- Me, for having the courage to meet with him.

Max was released in May of 2014, a day before his 19th birthday. Prior to his release hearing, my advocate told me to be prepared for an emotional day that may be upsetting and difficult. Thankfully, it was neither. Instead, I believe that because of our opportunity to meet face-to-face, it was freeing and filled with hope for Max's future.

It is remarkable that Jennifer forged her own restorative path. Skeptics may say this is simply one account of a personal journey. Certainly there are others. If a program was developed so that individuals aren't left to struggle to create their own restorative opportunities, metrics could be developed to gauge the program's effectiveness and costs. Programs such as the National Center for State Courts could be well situated to develop protocols and measurements. With time, we may also discover how restorative justice impacts the victims, defendants and public satisfaction with our system of justice.

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Judge Darlene A. O'Brien was appointed Washtenaw County Probate Judge in 2006 and won election later that year. She is an alumna of the University of Toledo and Notre Dame Law School. She had an active trial practice for 24 years, representing clients in criminal and civil matters. She was admitted to practice in the U.S. District Court, E.D. Mich., as well as the U. S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Published: Thu, Feb 04, 2016

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