New Hampshire has a shortage of defense attorneys. Many in the profession experience burnout due to excessive caseloads, delays in court due to the pandemic and the emotional toll of working with clients whose needs exceed the skillful representation of legal counsel.

Just as the pandemic compels us to rethink how we “do” school and work, even how we gather and communicate, the urgency of this situation invites us to consider how we “do” justice. In a recent article in The Keene Sentinel, Tracy Scavarelli, N.H. Public Defender’s director of legal services, acknowledged the need for “broader criminal justice reform investing more resources for substance abuse treatment and programs that prevent criminal justice involvement.” The article by Cassidy Jensen ends with Scavarelli’s statement: “If we were to treat those ‘crimes’ as medical issues and not criminal matters, then that would have a significant change on the dynamic of our criminal justice system.”

The time is ripe for a paradigm shift away from the zero-sum game of a retributive system that attempts to establish guilt, administer punishment and protect society. This approach focuses on narrow definitions of crime that often obscure the harm that happens as a result of an adversarial criminal legal system. An admission or finding of guilt is not synonymous with an understanding of the harm done by one’s actions, nor does it fully acknowledge the conditions and social narratives that often coincide with the rupture in relationship we define as crime.

Punishment is a poor substitute for accountability. Imposing a penalty, fine or sentence requires no reckoning with one’s deeds, inner motivation and unmet needs. The eminent forensic psychiatrist James Gilligan succinctly states that punishment doesn’t mitigate violence; it perpetuates it. An actual process of accountability creates the possibility of repair for the person(s) harmed and for those responsible for causing it.

Isolation by incarceration does not make our community safer. It simply moves the violence out of sight, exacerbates rifts in relationship and compounds existing trauma. Even the most diligent and compassionate corrections professionals can’t undo the structural damage of confining people in cells, away from family, support systems and environments designed to provide genuine accountability.

In the greater Keene community, there’s a growing acknowledgment that addiction and mental illness (and the related behaviors we criminalize) require public health responses. Though it may be harder to conceive of domestic violence and sexual assault as public health crises, their persistence and prevalence suggest they are not issues eradicated by a criminal legal system. Interpersonal violence — be it an exertion of power, an expression of unaddressed trauma, the encapsulation of toxicity in the culture, or some combination — doesn’t stop when the people who engage in it go to prison. Both the violence and our response to it undermine the health of our community.

This moment of crisis calls on us to engage in a process of re-imagining justice. Cornel West famously said, “Justice is what love looks like in public and tenderness feels like in private.”

While restorative justice provides processes that restore right relationship among individuals, transformative justice asks what allows those relationships to fall into misalignment in the first place. It is radical in its expressed desire to address root causes to ensure the well-being of the entire forest, not just a single tree.

I teach a course at Keene State College called “Until We Reckon.” As the title suggests, we focus on accountability — what it means to reckon with collective, historic and personal trauma; systemic racism; mass incarceration; climate change; inequity of resources; capital punishment; unacknowledged grief; stigmatization and deep social divisiveness. The young people I learn from and with seek a world that honors interconnectedness and recognizes what affects one, affects all. A new course I’m teaching this spring, Introduction to Restorative Practice, filled to capacity in three days.

Like the state’s defense attorneys, my co-learners are demoralized and fatigued. That’s why we begin each class asking if anyone has any tender spots. It’s why the first assignment is to develop a practice of self-compassion. We understand that the well-being of the entire cohort derives from the well-being of the constituent members. We sit in a circle to practice the deep listening that cultivates empathy and acknowledges vulnerability. We engage in necessary, uncomfortable, transformative conversations that foster agency, accountability and right relationship. And I hope when we step off campus, we will find a community willing to shift the paradigm from a criminal legal system that fails — despite the good intention and valiant effort of its practitioners — to transcend burnout and systemic harm.

Might we seek to do justice to the concept of inherent worth, dignity and belonging in a way that makes transformative justice advocates of us all?

Rev. Leaf Seligman of Hancock is a writer, educator and restorative practitioner.

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