Lara Bazelon’s groundbreaking book “Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction” is a searing indictment of the criminal justice system’s penchant for flawed practices, depraved indifference toward offenders and wanton abuses of power. It is also a testimony to the heroic efforts of crime victims and exonerees to creatively use restorative justice mechanisms to heal each other, build intentional communities and join together to “rectify” the wrongs perpetrated by those responsible for otherwise safeguarding our society.
The book chronicles the history of wrongful convictions alongside the development of the innocence movement by using a mix of statistics and heavily researched cases. Although statistics portray the extensiveness of the problem, the cases give a bleak and human face to the appalling struggle to be heard by the current system, survive decades of incarceration, confront the time warp and barriers to freedom even after exoneration, and claim legitimacy in the face of limited support, scarce resources and non-caring communities.
Bazelon also uses exoneration cases to detail the plight of crime victims who, after years of believing the perpetrator is safely behind bars, discover that the wrong person has been imprisoned. Besides the terror associated with the fact that the actual perpetrator may be at large, crime victims are burdened with overwhelming guilt and self-blame, particularly if they gave eyewitness testimony at trials that assured the exoneree’s conviction. Using the voices of both exonerees and crime victims, Bazelon highlights their shared victimization and the torture of the prison aftermath for both.
Time spent behind bars averages nine years, three months for exonerees. Ominously, a University of Michigan study found that 4 percent of death row inmates are innocent. Many of these wrongly convicted prisoners spend decades in prison before they are exonerated.
Using this backdrop, Bazelon gives an overview of the problem. Drawing on data from 1,600 exonerations compiled by the National Registry of Exonerations, she reports that 55 percent of exonerations involved false testimony or lies, 34 percent were based on mistaken eyewitness identifications, 45 percent were the result of bad acts or omissions by police and prosecution, 25 percent involved “junk science’ or evidence based on conjecture, e.g. outdated theories about arson or hair analysis, and 13 percent were due to false confessions attained through threat or the promise of rewards.
But the denunciation of the criminal justice system gets worse as Bazelon examines what happens in the aftermath of a prisoner’s claimed innocence. For example, 85 percent of conviction integrity exonerations are the result of work done by only four offices in the country. In 18 states, exonorees are given no money or services when they leave prison. Poor health treatment while incarcerated leaves exonerees with untreated serious and life-threatening conditions. In one case, a wrongly convicted prisoner became seriously ill from hepatitis A that was the result of fecal matter in the food that had been contaminated by infected prisoners who worked in the kitchen.
In situations where evidence shows a prisoner’s innocence, some states may engage in yearslong legal battles to preserve the convictions. Although DNA has been a mainstay both for undoing wrongful convictions and finding the right perpetrator if that person is in the system, these advances can be thwarted by the system. Bazelon shares stories of crime labs that have destroyed all biological and physical evidence after a conviction, crime victims who refuse to recant their testimony, and laws in states like Virginia that forbid judges from reconsidering any evidence brought to light more than three weeks after a defendant’s conviction becomes official.
Some of these practices are draconian, and many, if not most, reflect intransigent and calcified habits. In her descriptions of the circumstances exonorees endure, she exposes a heretofore hidden world that is marked by abject cruelty and a shameless dehumanizing of others. For exonerees, many find it difficult, if not impossible, to escape from the psychological prison that accompanies a wrongful conviction.
Bazelon paints a different but equally traumatizing portrait of life for crime victims, both in the aftermath of the crime itself and again when they are accosted by the shock of the news that the person behind bars was actually innocent. While the supposed perpetrator is in prison, crime victims experience little relief from anxiety, depression, a sense of imminent danger that never leaves and medical problems related to the trauma of the crime with ongoing accumulated fear and stress.
After the exoneration, they find that no one is concerned with their suffering. They feel ignored, devalued as crime victims, and newly inundated with conflicting emotions. They learn how the criminal justice system erred and now have to live with both what happened to them as a result of the crime and with a profound sense of responsibility for having ruined someone’s life. Bazelon repeatedly shows how both exoneree and crime victim are sentenced to live within a torturous aftermath without resolution.
Restorative justice a healing solution
After exposing this vivid reality, Bazelon introduces restorative justice. She notes that it is an approach for bringing together persons directly impacted by crime or wrongdoing for dialogue and reparations. She reviews the history of the restorative justice movement by examining its role in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, juvenile justice in New Zealand, public schools that feed the school-to-prison pipeline, deterrence programs such as RISE and grassroots efforts including Black Lives Matter. She again uses case narratives to illustrate how restorative justice fosters personal accountability and the building of community among victims, offenders, family members and other key players.
Bazelon recounts how crime victims have taken the lead to meet with exonerees in restorative justice dialogues for mutual healing, assuaging of guilt and moving together to reform the system responsible for their current suffering. This initiative, called Healing Justice, has evolved into a series of nationwide retreats for survivors of wrongful convictions, including crime victims, exonerees and others. These innovative retreats use a restorative justice community building model to help participants share feelings in an effort to reduce their stranglehold on participants’ lives.
Bazelon poignantly describes the meaningful and deeply caring and committed relationships between participants and the depth of support they provide for each other in discovering their shared pain, the struggle about where to put it now, clarity about how much responsibility to take for what happened and the arduousness of self-forgiveness. Participants feel a sense of belonging that nurtures their newly found confidence and drive.
Retreat participants have made concerted efforts to change the system that caused or contributed to wrongful convictions. Action has been taken to require law enforcement in Pennsylvania to keep records of all physical evidence and upload DNA test results into the criminal justice system to check for matches. Participation on a death penalty review commission has promoted reforms such as best practices in administration of lineups, use of forensic science, preservation of evidence, funding of indigent defense and disclosure of evidence.
Trainings have been developed for law enforcement offices about how to work with crime victims, including conveying the news of a wrongful conviction to minimize retraumatization. Retreat participants have also formed organizations to mitigate the societal disregard for young black men in dire need of a bridge between childhood and adulthood or to help former prisoners reenter society.
A new social justice movement
“Rectify” reveals the injustices within the criminal justice system that disproportionately target and enslave wrongfully convicted black men. It also introduces us to an emerging community that effectively challenges bias-producing, systemic norms and practices. Importantly, the book shows us the power of restorative justice to do for crime victims and exonerees what nothing else has achieved. Specifically, restorative justice in the context of wrongful convictions treats the wounds by fostering truth over error and deception, healing over further traumatization, belonging over alienation and advocacy for system change over indifference.
Indeed, the use of restorative justice is notable for several reasons. The usual roles of victim, offender and community shift dramatically in wrongful convictions. The “offender” becomes the victim, the criminal justice system or community becomes the offender, and the crime victim becomes both offender for the role they may have played in the conviction and victim of the system. It is this shift in roles that makes bringing together the exoneree and crime victim as mutual victims so powerful. Their healing might be further enhanced if the retreats sought to include individuals within the criminal justice system, including jurors and other stakeholders responsible for the wrongful conviction, who too are suffering and ready for dialogue and meaningful accountability.
Restorative justice is frequently represented as a philosophy and set of practices. In the context of wrongful convictions, restorative justice also becomes a social justice movement in its cultivation of reforms. Indeed, in “Rectify,” Bazelon shows how restorative justice undoes the adversarial divide that masks the shared humanity of crime victim and exonoree and empowers them to unite in common cause as advocates for system change. Proponents of innocence projects have found a close ally in restorative justice — an ally that has the capacity to actualize the hope embodied in exonerations.
Marilyn Armour, Ph.D. LICSW, is a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at The University of Texas at Austin, and founder of The Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue. She is co-author of “Restorative Justice Dialogue” (with Mark Umbreit) and most recently “Violence, Restorative Justice and Forgiveness.”