OPINION: Why Can’t Justice Punish and Heal at the Same Time?

by Marcus Harrison Green

(This column is co-published with The Seattle Times) 

Yonas Seifu and Devon Adams have desperately sought wholesale healing from a justice system capable of supplying them only scraps. 

In 2006, Seifu nearly died after a bullet randomly struck him in the head while he sat on the couch at a Lake City house party hosted by University of Washington fraternity brothers. 

Seven years earlier, on a walk to a South Seattle liquor store, an inebriated 20-year-old Adams killed Franklin Brown after an argument escalated between the two strangers. 

Seifu and Adams’ lives are forever dyed with the consequences of those violent acts. Seifu endured emotional, physical and psychological torment after his incident. He still walks with a limp and is unable to toss his 2-year-old daughter in the air out of fear of not catching her. 

Adams, originally sentenced to 30 years for Brown’s death, served 22 years in Washington state prisons after the state Supreme Court ruled that a person’s youthfulness should be considered during their sentencing for a crime. Adams’ sentence was reduced and he was recently fully released from Department of Corrections oversight. 

Both are still trying to find and provide healing all these years later. Both feel denied that right by a criminal justice system reinforced by fear, outrage and racism. And both harbor a lingering question of that current system: Why is prison largely the only option for justice after someone’s been harmed?

“We’ve all been conditioned to believe that accountability means one thing, which is punishment,” said Adams, now 42, during a Zoom interview. “It’s only when you have different options that you can choose from, that you can begin to open your mind and imagine what things could look like.” 

A new picture of accountability is something Adams is working to develop, alongside other criminal justice reformers, as a recently hired project coordinator with Collective Justice NW, an organization he first encountered while still in prison. Founded in 2017 by lawyer and Soros Fellow Martina Kartman, the organization seeks to minimize imprisonment as a reaction to interpersonal violence. Instead it advocates approaches that acknowledge the humanity of and trauma visited upon all parties impacted by acts of violence by bringing together survivors, incarcerated people and their communities. 

Central to that approach is Healing Justice. Created by Cara Page and the Kindred Healing Justice Collective as a response to bloodshed within their Georgia community, the national organization prioritizes individual and collective healing, offering people the ability to voluntarily navigate the sometimes complex maze around healing through workshops, support groups and dialogues with those who harmed them. 

It’s what attracted Seifu to join the group two years ago as a member of its advisory committee.  

“I thought that this could be where I actually heal, even though I’m not really connecting with the [person who harmed me]. But I wanted to get a better understanding of how the system is set up and why it can’t heal me as a victim,” said Seifu. 

Although he will likely never meet the person who shot him, Seifu has found healing vicariously through listening to the stories of parents who have lost their children to gun violence and have forgiven their child’s killer after building a relationship. This connection provides them an assessment of that person’s growth and transformation. It also provides an examination of the trauma, racial and gender oppression, and social circumstances that set that person on a tragic collision with the family’s loved one. 

Perhaps most importantly, it offers an answer to the question of “why did this happen” that goes beyond a simplistic answer of “bad people do bad things.” That answer is typically more nuanced if not always satisfying: People often commit harm because of a lifetime spent experiencing abuse, neglect, resource depletion and lack of opportunity. 

This was Adams’ experience growing up in a household where his father regularly assaulted his mother and drug abuse was rampant.

Now a holder of a bachelor’s degree in economics he earned in prison, developer of an educational equity program at Monroe prison and a facilitator for gang prevention groups, Adams will never get the chance to give a living apology to the Brown family — even if they were accepting of one — due to a no contact order. 

And there lies the problem with our minimal varieties of justice. No, healing justice will not satisfy all who suffer violence. But neither will strictly punitive justice, which in this state — where three strikes and life without parole are still the law of the land despite recent reforms — has disproportionately handed life and long-term sentences to people of color, particularly Black people.

Though not for everyone, healing justice provides an option for survivors of violence and their families not wishing to follow tragedy with tragedy.

What it can offer, as it does in the cases of Adams and Seifu, is the ability for two people to embark on a lifetime of healing after a life-altering moment of pain.

And it can do so at a pace that concedes transformation is as hard, messy and paradoxical as people are prone to be. 

Marcus Harrison Green

Marcus Harrison Green is the publisher of the South Seattle Emerald. Growing up in South Seattle, he experienced first-hand the impact of one-dimensional stories on marginalized communities, which taught him the value of authentic narratives. After an unfulfilling stint in the investment world during his twenties, Marcus returned to his community with a newfound purpose of telling stories with nuance, complexity, and multidimensionality with the hope of advancing social change. This led him to become a writer and found the South Seattle Emerald. He was named one of Seattle’s most influential people by Seattle Magazine in 2016 and was awarded 2020 Individual Human Rights Leader by the Seattle Human Rights Commission.

Featured illustration by Vladimir Verano for the South Seattle Emerald.

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