Mothers for Justice and Equality (MJE) is a group founded by women who have lost children to violence. Because of our unfortunate circumstances, we are in a unique position to comment on the “Three strikes you’re out” bill under consideration by the Legislature.
This bill will profoundly and unfairly impact black and Hispanic/Latino urban communities where poverty precludes retaining a good defense attorney and where judicial distrust hinders consideration of alternative approaches to nonviolent crime. In fact, for a third conviction, this bill allows no judicial discretion.
Three convictions for theft can mean 25 years to life. Is this justice? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere; we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
It is too easy to become desensitized to loss and this lack of sensitivity dehumanizes us all. We forget the parents and families grieving their children; we forget the young lives ruined. As mothers, we fear for our children’s lives, both because of the violence on our streets and because of the alarming incarceration rates of young people from urban communities. We know all too well that there is more than one way to lose your child.
MJE believes that mothers can become catalysts for change in our communities. Many of us have met with the youths who have murdered our children and we have forgiven them. We have embraced the mothers of our children’s murderers. A year after her son was killed, one of our members so poignantly stated, “Justice for me is saving another child.”
MJE believes that together mothers can be the key to ending violence. Mothers can be empowered to intervene before our children are swept up in the crime that will lead, inevitably, to our losing them. We, whose loss is indescribable, can forgive and can imagine a different future where young people are raised in the safety of engaged and supportive neighborhoods.
We can look for ways to educate and reintegrate young people back into our communities. We must work together to change the perceptions of the problems our neighborhoods face. Incarcerating members of our community at unprecedented rates in overcrowded prisons is not the answer.
Building a community of accountability, practicing restorative justice, and creating a network of services to break the cycle of recidivism are far more effective responses to nonviolent crime. Early intervention, rather than lock-up, provides an opportunity to mentor both youth and families.
We can stop the violence before it occurs. According to the Massachusetts Bar Foundation, a disproportionately high number of black and Hispanic/Latino youth are held in secure detention. Many of these children suffer from mental health problems which could be much better served through community-based services.
Once in the Department of Youth Services system, young people are taken off their Individual Education Plans, disrupting their opportunity for an education. Almost half of these children do not return to school after their release.
Lacking education and community supports, their chances for rehabilitation and a healthy reintegration with society become more and more remote. Tragically, for most of these youth, they spiral further into the criminal justice system.
Over the next several months, MJE will educate hundreds of mothers about the impact that this bill can have on them and the kinds of alternatives to imprisonment that can be funded by the Legislature. We will encourage them to let their voices be heard. If we, as mothers who have lost a child, can reach out to young offenders and practice restorative justice, so can the Commonwealth.
Monalisa Smith is president of Mothers for Justice and Equality.