Yesterday was a long and difficult day. I spent the afternoon sitting in a courtroom, waiting for the sentencing of a young woman whom I have come to know very well over the past year.
I won’t talk about her case here, or what was said, but I feel very strongly about sharing my experience because I realize it is one that most people will never have. I wish I could say that yesterday’s proceedings restored my faith in our justice system, but I would not be telling the truth. I wish I could say I sat there completely trusting the outcome for my friend, but that would also be a lie.
Due to several miscommunications in regards to the trial time, I arrived in downtown Orlando a few hours early yesterday. To pass the time, I grabbed a coffee and sat outside to read and pray and try not to puke. It is incredibly nerve wracking to know that someone you care about is about to have the next several years of their life decided for them. It’s terrifying, actually. I have never been incarcerated, so I have never had to wake up early in the morning (if I even slept the night before) by a corrections officer, shackled, and then moved from one isolated cell to another until a blacked out van picked me up some three hours later to take me to the courthouse. I have never been escorted by armed guards to another isolated cell in a dark, cold area to wait another few hours for yet another armed guard to escort me up to a courtroom where my attorney, whom I have only seen a handful of times and may or may not know my name, may or may not be on time and waiting for me. I have never felt what it is like to sit in a room, still shackled, while a video camera, media cameras, the prosecution attorney, and the family of a victim, as well as my own family and friends, stare at me. Oh, and we have all been instructed to show no emotion or recognition whatsoever. That could sway a decision. I have never known what it is like to hear people – total strangers and acquaintances alike – speak into a microphone in regards to my past, my character, my children, and my judgement. I have never waited, with my hands chained, for a judge to render a decision which will dictate how the next 5-25 years of my life will be spent.
My friend was in this position yesterday, and it was one of the most painful things I have ever experienced just to be there with her and her family. There were a lot of tears. There was a lot of anger, but that had to be kept hidden so that no one would get removed from the court room.
A large group of us, including my friend’s family, sat in a circle outside of the courtroom when all was finished. There were several reasons for this. The first was to hear from my friend’s attorney. The second was for safety. The third was for prayer. There were a lot of hugs and prayers. I had never met most of the people present, but by the time I left they felt like family.
As we left the courthouse, my friend’s brother sang a song he had written called “I Will Wait”. It is a beautiful song, and he stood firm in his belief that he will see his sister live in freedom soon. No one else in the courthouse was singing – just this grieving young man who hasn’t seen his sister out of shackles in quite some time.
After leaving the courthouse, another friend and I went to get some dinner and process all that had just happened. Here are a few things we noticed:
- The only people present in the courtroom who had any sort of authority or voice in the matter were white.
- Just because attorneys are paid, it doesn’t mean they will show up when they are supposed to, or even know what is about to happen.
- The media doesn’t seem to care what is going on in the room, as long as they capture it on film.
Then my friend looked at me and said, “Can you imagine what would happen if you were judged on the worst 10 seconds of your life?”
After a pause, I looked at her and said, “Yea. I would be in prison.”
As a therapist, I know that jail and prison do nothing to restore, repair, or redeem someone who has made bad decisions. Isolation actually contributes to more mental health problems, more addiction, more criminal behavior, and more physical/emotional/mental/psychological damage in a person.
As a community member, I know that there needs to be some consequence for those who inflict harm on others.
As a Christian, I know that Jesus forgave murderers, prostitutes, embezzlers, liars, thieves, and more.
So where does that leave us in the midst of a very broken and damaging “justice” system? When and how will anything ever change? Does it starts from the top or the bottom, or maybe somewhere in the middle.
I don’t know that answer, but I do know this: if each of us were to carefully examine our own stories and how we few others as well as ourselves, it would bring us to a place of choice. Do I treat others with respect and dignity, regardless of who they are or where they come from? Or do I blindly choose who receives dignity and who receives distain? What if every decision we make – personally, professionally, financially, relationally, spiritually, mentally, physically, emotionally – were based on these two choices? What if we all chose the first option?