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A Bridge that Connects or a Bridge that Divides

Often while watching the local news I see reporters standing on that bridge who created Raleigh skyline as I drive from the south each morning on my way to the law school. The Boylan Avenue Bridge on the edge of Raleigh provides a spectacular view of the their stories with the beautiful skyline in the background just over their shoulders. They choose this shot to feature stories about prosperity and success. The skyline is a symbol of those things. I find myself always looking to the skyline as I drive over the bridge. But, moved by my time with a group of amazing folks from Wayne County and the stories we shared over the course of a two day circle keeper training, I began to think a lot about the divide we have in this country. The divide between success and destruction. The divide we have between those we encourage and those we condemn. That divide is evident from the Boylan Avenue Bridge. To the east is a shining city on a hill. But to the west is a dark place. A place of stone and metal and guards with guns. A place that holds the ones we have condemned to die. It is Central Prison.

But the condemnation does not begin when citizens are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. It begins when we create laws that hold people in poverty. It begins when we make rules that do not allow some people to create and maintain wealth. It begins when we let racism and hate get in the way of love. It begins when we decide to become a bridge that divides instead of becoming a bridge that connects.

Early in my career as a criminal defense attorney I realized that we condemn way too many for way too long and the condemnation begins way too early. I represented adults and children and saw clearly the connection between bringing a child into the criminal legal system and watching them progress to prison. Every day when I witnessed the pain in the courtroom I thought there has got to be a better way. And I discovered it.

Restorative Justice believes that justice should include not only recognizing that a law has been broken but also realizing that people are hurt by crime and other factors that lead them there. The traditional system asks three questions: What law has been broken, who did it and what do they deserve? Restorative Justice asks very different questions. Who has been hurt, how have they been hurt, who has an obligation to address the hurt and how can we all work together to make things as right as possible.

In 2003 Campbell Law School opened a Restorative Justice Clinic to practice and preach the good word of Restorative Justice. The focus was on juvenile crime. We worked with young people and their victims to help young people understand the pain they had caused when they broke the law. But it didn’t stop there. We worked with them and their victims to create ways to right the wrongs, and learn valuable lessons along the way that lead to creating relationship that helped them not to reoffend and to make the victims whole. We also realized that many of the cases that were in the juvenile criminal system were sent there by schools. Juvenile behavior in schools had become criminalized unnecessarily. To combat that thing that we now call the School to Prison Pipeline, we built relationships with schools and provided them with a resource that they can use to keep kids out of the court system and to truly address and resolve the conflict in schools in a way such that kids don’t tend to reoffend and they are able to stay in the school and out of the courtroom.

Wayne County Communities in Schools has embraced Restorative Justice and the practices that go along with it. I had the privilege recently to sit for two days with about fifteen folks from Wayne County who work with young people on the daily. They gave of their time to learn about the Restorative tool called Circle Process. They gave of their time because they care about kids and community. They care about becoming a bridge that connects and not a bridge that divides. I was so encouraged to know that so many people in Wayne County care so deeply about their young people because they know that even though we are supposed to have been created equal, we don’t always treat each other that way. Circle process is a way to build relationship, to see each other as brothers and sisters and to work to support all people. It is a way to become a bridge that connects and not a bridge that divides.

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