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Police Violence And Reform: The Inequality In Restorative Justice Opportunities

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we want to turn to the other crisis this country is facing - police violence and the ensuing fallout. Protests have been taking place around the country after horrifying body-worn camera footage was released showing a Chicago police officer shooting and killing 13-year-old Adam Toledo after a chase. The Chicago Police say the officer believed Toledo had a gun. Protests are also still going on in response to the shooting death of 20-year-old Daunte Wright last Sunday during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minn., the officer saying there she mistook her gun for a taser.

And of course, this all takes place against the backdrop of the trial of former Minnesota officer Derek Chauvin and the death of George Floyd last year, a death that sparked some of the largest protest marches in memory all over the world. And one of the goals of protesters in the wake of these tragedies and others has been to demand a fresh look at law enforcement in this country, which many critics say relies too heavily on long prison terms at the expense of other reforms. So that got us thinking about when the police are on trial.

We called sujatha baliga for that. She's been writing and thinking about alternative justice systems for years now. She's in Berkeley, Calif., and she's the former director of Impact Justice's Restorative Justice Project. And she is with us now. Sujatha baliga, welcome back. Thank you so much for talking with us.

SUJATHA BALIGA: Thank you for having me on again, Michel.

MARTIN: So we actually spoke a couple of years ago when you were awarded a so-called MacArthur Genius Grant - congratulations for that, once again - for your work as an attorney doing restorative justice work. So just as briefly as you can, I just wanted to ask - how have you been rethinking alternatives to law enforcement? Could you just give us sort of a top line summary, perhaps maybe explain what restorative justice is?

BALIGA: Sure. So restorative justice is a paradigm shift in the way in which we think about harm and wrongdoing. Rather than asking the questions that the state asks when confronted with harm and violence - what law was broken, who broke it and how should they be punished? - restorative justice asks a completely different set of questions. It starts with the person who was harmed and expects the answers to flow best out of community. So it asks who was harmed and what do they need and whose obligation is it to meet those needs? And when best practiced, it's done in a way that really attends to underlying causes and conditions that gave rise to the harm as well.

MARTIN: In recent years, large settlements have been made to families where someone has been killed. But many people are unsatisfied with that. They don't think that's enough. So I'm asking you - how do you think of this? Do you think alternative models should be considered when a police officer kills someone?

BALIGA: The question is - in what order is restorative justice rolled out in our communities? When the call is, in a murder case, for a police officer to be the first person to receive an option for restorative justice, this will fundamentally undermine communities of color's faith and belief that our reforms are actually for those who are being most directly damaged and impacted by the failings of the criminal legal system, right? So I'll just tell a personal story about this.

Quite some time ago now, when Oscar Grant was killed and murdered by a - by BART police officer, there was a question that was raised about whether or not we wanted to have, you know, Officer Mehserle receive restorative justice. And there was some talk behind the scenes about whether or not, you know, I would be willing to facilitate that dialogue. And my very first response was - we are trying to build a youth diversion program in which young people have the opportunity, when they commit offenses like burglaries and robberies, receive restorative justice entirely in lieu of the criminal legal system.

And we were slowly but surely building that program at that time. And it was slow going in the beginning. And people were very much like, but not for cases of violence, but not for cases of violence. And it took a lot of work for us to convince the system's partners that violent crimes actually were really well-handled through a community-based restorative justice project, a program.

So to jump to the idea that a police officer, Mehserle, who had had Oscar Grant on the ground, fully compliant in handcuffs and shot him in his back, that this would be the first crime of severe violence that we would be offering restorative justice for, you know, my initial answer was not no way but rather, OK, well, how about there's a 20 to 1 ratio where for every police officer that receives the option for restorative justice, you show me 20 African American men who also committed homicides. And let's see if their victims are amenable also to restorative justice because I do receive - I have received over the years many calls from African American crime survivors who were not interested in engaging the criminal legal system for crimes of severe violence, including homicide.

And the system has declined to allow that process to move forward. So why the question is then, to my mind, if this is truly a legitimate reform, the vast majority of those who are getting locked up, as you point out, are not officers who are killing unarmed Black people but rather African Americans and other people of color who - and white people as well who are committing crimes, right? So until RJ's available for them, why should it be available for police officers?

MARTIN: Before we let you go, do you see an appetite - do you see an appetite for rethinking the entire enterprise of policing as the way you've just begun to describe to us here?

BALIGA: I think that there is a process of learning in which the wool starts to get pulled away from our eyes about - what's the historical basis of this and what is the current operation of it? And what are the police doing for us today? How is it working for us? How's it working for them? And when we start to see the flaws and when we start to see, particularly with restorative justice, we're starting to have data now that shows that alternatives entirely operating out outside of the criminal legal system and solving harm outside that these have way better outcomes than the current criminal legal system. So when we start to see more outcomes like this, when we start to have more data like this, when we have more stories like this of success, I think that that appetite will continue to grow.

MARTIN: That was sujatha baliga. She is a winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant for her work in reimagining criminal justice. She's a former director of Impact Justice's Restorative Justice Project. Sujatha baliga, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us.

BALIGA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.