Finding Humanity in Our Criminal Justice System

It was dark and windy the evening of Sunday, September 8, 2019, when Luis Alberto Quiñonez—everyone called him Sito—and his girlfriend, Ariana Bassard, left his girlfriend’s mother’s new apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District. Sito noticed that one of the tires on his car seemed low on air. After reinflating it at a service station, Sito made a quick, hard right into heavy traffic, which caused his girlfriend Arianna to drop her cell phone underneath her seat. They pulled over around the corner so she could retrieve it.

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A young man in a hooded sweatshirt stepped up to the car’s driver’s-side window, raised an automatic pistol to the glass, and started shooting. By the time the shooter finished, 21 cartridges littered the car, inside and out. Seventeen of those bullets had cut through Sito’s neck, shoulder, chest, and stomach. Arianna survived. Sito did not.

Sito was my stepson’s half-brother. His murder forced my family to grapple with the cyclical tragedy of gang violence, vengeance, and an indifferent criminal justice system. Whenever I reflect on the circumstances of his death, one question keeps coming back to haunt me: when a life is extinguished by street violence, how does a victim’s family heal?

This question isn’t new to me, but the personal context is. As a professor of Anthropology and Public Affairs at Princeton, my work focuses on patterns and cultures of American urban violence. For a very long time, I have been aware of the terrible effects of incarcerating young people. But it wasn’t until Sito’s murder that I really understood how worthless a victim’s family can be made to feel in their encounter with the criminal justice system—especially if, in the past, the system has treated them or their loved ones as perpetrators.

This humanity and care are rarely available to those caught up in this country’s justice system, especially the juvenile justice system. Sito was one of these young people: when he was 14 years old, Sito was accused of murdering a former classmate. He spent five months in the San Francisco Youth Guidance Center (otherwise known as juvenile hall) while the district attorney decided whether to try him as an adult. Sito was lucky: a private investigator uncovered surveillance footage of the attack, showing clearly that Sito did not kill the young man. The DA dropped the charges against Sito, and he was released.

Read More: Youth Prisons Don’t Work. Here’s What Does.

But despite the clearing of Sito’s name, it was far from cleared in a practical sense—and just about everyone who goes through the system can tell a similar tale. In the shadow of a wrongful accusation, the accused and their families often bear the stigma of a “criminal” label both with the public and in their personal lives. Wrongful accusation typically results in severe post-traumatic stress, and that murder allegation would haunt Sito for the rest of his short life. Five years after he was accused of this murder, Sito was murdered by the young man’s little brother, who could not be convinced that Sito wasn’t responsible for his brother’s death.

This tragic cycle of violence—played out in my family here, but typical for families across the U.S. dealing with the pervasiveness and pain of urban violence—has forced me to think about accountability in new ways. It is my firm belief that the people whom the system accuses of crimes, wrongfully or not, need to be humanized at every step of the process—from the moment a news story about a crime breaks to when the gavel sounds and a verdict is announced.

Humanizing both victims and perpetrators of violence may seem like a simple and obvious strategy. Of course, it isn’t: Violence provokes compassion for the victim, and oftentimes, rage against the perpetrator. This is especially true within the criminal justice system, where one or the other emotion is considered an appropriate response—but never both, and never at the same time. The system is designed to crush complexity because of this binary, which is then relentlessly reduced to slogans and soundbites on social media.

Read More: The Path to Redemption for Our Criminal Justice System

But what if we could embrace the grey areas of this binary rather than diminish it, and instead, promote healthy debates regarding imprisonment? Because in doing so, we might begin to recognize that people who commit crimes—or are even just accused of doing so—are human beings worthy of empathy and care just as much as crime victims.

To help the public grapple with hot button issues like crime and violence, our institutions must dedicate themselves to reducing misinformation about crimes existing—and spreading—in the first place. Schools, for example, should promote media literacy programs to educate individuals about verifying information before sharing. Social media platforms should continue to enforce strict policies against the spread of false information, flagging misinformation while empowering users to report incorrect information. And responsible reporting by the news media would ensure that when someone like Sito is exonerated of a crime, official sources, such as police statements and government announcements, amplify this news. The result would be a more sober, equitable, and humane approach to criminal accountability.

Before Sito’s murder, I did not know that I could experience compassion and rage at the same time. Yet in writing about his life and death, I came to see that our society needs a form of accountability that blends these seemingly contradictory emotions. As an alternative to criminal punishment, restorative justice allows for that possibility.

In some settings, victims and offenders communicate directly with one another so that the perpetrator can acknowledge fault and offer some form of restitution to the victim. The victim, in turn, may forgive the perpetrator, bringing a sense of closure to the crime. The perpetrator may also become more willing to embark on a journey of self-improvement. In other settings, community stakeholders publicly discuss their grief, and the perpetrator receives their messages later. Whether the victim’s communication with the perpetrator is private and direct or public and indirect, the goal is for the victim and the perpetrator to understand each other better—or at least stop thinking of each other as enemies. Researchers have proven that restorative justice reduces imprisonment (and therefore costs to the system), provides greater satisfaction for both victims and offenders, and decreases recidivism rates.

Restorative justice is as much a mindset as it is a collection of standardized techniques. Its core principles include public accountability and a commitment to investigating the root causes of wrongful acts. Can we borrow something of this model, and apply it to the criminal justice system, more broadly? To reject complexity and yearn for purity, is, after all, to turn away from the intricate nature of the human situation. We do so at our peril—and at the expense of young lives that could be so much more.

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