Having slid in a few minutes late, I sat in the last row of the courtroom. I had only been in a courtroom one other time since my husband’s immigration court appearance. Neither were particularly positive experiences.
Court proceedings are dry, confusing and surreal. Jargon and formalities make it feel like a scene in a movie, but the decisions made there can change the course of one’s life in real and dramatic ways.
Such was the case on that day. It was a resentencing hearing for a young man convicted of murder when he was 17 years old — we’ll call him Jonathan. I had gotten to know him through a few letter exchanges within my work at Kolbe House Jail Ministry. By this time he had served 11 years of a 53-year prison sentence.
There had been big changes in the state law regarding sentencing of juveniles — namely, they could no longer be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Thanks to this change, Jonathan was eligible to appear before the same judge who had sentenced him 11 years prior. This judge could impose a new sentence, ranging from 20 to 40 years.
As I sat on the cool, wooden bench, I listened to the state’s attorney read aloud letters from the family of the young man — also only 17 years old — who had lost his life at Jonathan’s hand. They described the pain of losing their loved one; pain that does not disappear over time but rather becomes part of the fabric of daily life.
Jonathan’s family has the benefit of getting to see him alive, even if it is behind prison bars, the letter read. He should receive the maximum sentence, 40 years, to honor the life that was lost and send a message to others who might be contemplating violence.
Then the mitigation team’s witnesses offered another perspective. My colleague, our Kolbe House staff jail chaplain, shared how his weekly encounters with Jonathan revealed his deep spiritual identity. Jonathan, he said, had learned to recognize and act out of his core of goodness rather than out of any desires or impulses he might experience.
A cousin representing Jonathan’s family shared how their visits, letters and phone calls with him had become a source of encouragement and mentorship for his siblings and cousins. She shared words from his mother, apologizing for not providing the kind of loving, nurturing environment that she should have. She assured the judge that their family would provide all the support that Jonathan could possibly need if he could be released with time left to live his life. She had been poised, passionate and articulate. In her closing words, she broke into tears as she begged for his freedom.
Both these witnesses felt that a day beyond the minimum sentence would do more harm than good, and I agreed with them. While I would never invalidate a grieving family’s desire for vengeance, I believe that a process of justice should be driven by the desire for healing rather than pain.
In this particular circumstance, my heart had also been touched by Jonathan in the short time I had known him. He writes with a poetic depth that often stops me in my tracks, prompting me to reflect on my own life while marveling at the healing journey he has taken.
I asked him for permission to share some of his words — words that have made a deep, lasting impression on me. These particular words have helped me make sense of the seemingly contradictory “colors” inside myself, as you can read about in my previous Messy Jesus Business reflection. He wrote:
We have a way of labeling people & putting them in categories as in “good” or “bad,” but I believe people can be looked at as we look at every passing day. People tend to observe the color of a day only at its beginnings & ends, but to me, it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades & intonations, w/ each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors.
Jonathan has come to see his growth over the last 11 years as a sort of rite of passage that has resulted in mature, responsible adulthood. While other teenagers do this with camping trips or retreats that promote self-reflection and discovery, he has done so — despite the deprivation, hostility and isolation that have fought against him the entire time — behind prison bars.
As the arguments ended and the judge retired to his chamber to prepare his decision, I wasn’t thinking so much about Jonathan’s personal growth. I was thinking more about how far removed this process of “justice” is from a Gospel-centered approach to justice.
When Jesus encountered those who had done harm, he spoke to them by name, invited them to conversion and reunited them with a community. While there are those who will argue that punishment is Godly, a holistic reading of scriptures reveals a God who will go immeasurable distances to forgive, show mercy, reconcile and unite.
Justice does not have to look like a cold, impersonal courtroom ruled by legal intricacies and static definitions. Justice could be something beautiful and dynamic that is created within the context of a loving community. Justice can be lifegiving and colorful, just as each of us reflect such an abundance of different colors.
The justice administered within courtrooms is far from that. On that day, though, we were able to claim a small victory as the judge sentenced Jonathan to 20 years — the minimum legal sentence. In nine years, he will be free from prison.
In the meantime, the movement towards creative, healing justice for everyone continues.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Emily Cortina is a mother raising three bilingual, bicultural children alongside her Mexican husband. She is an advocate for transformative and restorative justice and believes strongly in parishes as mostly untapped sources of radical community. She works at Kolbe House Jail Ministry in Chicago, Illinois.