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How to Live Our Ideals of Justice in the Real World (#58)

Jul 15, 2021

I still remember the faculty meeting. One of my advisees had engaged in unauthorized behavior in his assigned field placement – multiple times – and lied about it after being caught. This was a clear violation of our College guidelines and any interpretation of professional ethics.  Several faculty members and administrators were ready to sever him from the program. The implicit question we as a faculty were grappling with was how do we determine whether our decisions are just.

At the time, the College had been going through a period where several students had engaged in troublesome behavior.  We held several meetings of the full faculty to review those situations and determine how to handle each with consistency.  The situation involving my advisee was one of those brought to this special faculty session. As his advisor, I was expected to interview him, make an assessment, and present a recommendation to the full faculty.

Thomas was a young man of color (I am not identifying his real name or specific ethnic group to protect his identity).  He was smart, high energy, and spoke his mind freely. In our prior conversations, he had told me that he was a first-generation college student.  Graduate work was beyond even his expectations.  He had grown up poor with loving but hard-working parents, and had to figure things out on his own.

When first assigned to me as an advisee, he was often flippant in his responses; that quickly changed. We were very direct with one another. When he talked with me one-on-one,  his expression and tone of voice changed, and I saw the aspiring young professional-to-be behind the facade. As his advisor when the field placement fiasco blew up, it was up to me to contact him and bring his case to the faculty.

We talked for two and a half hours.  At first he told me the same story he had told the College.  He hadn’t really done it, he had a reason to do what he did, he was planning to make it up.  I explained that it was easy for me to imagine that he had shucked and jived his way through most of his academic career – doing what he had to do to get out of trouble or pass his courses. What it took for high school and college was different than what it would take to succeed in the small professional world of social work.  Success relied on people’s ability to trust your integrity. One lie could kill your career. I warned him, this is your future if you don’t get what I have to say to you.

We went back and forth until he began to understand what I was saying.  About two hours into the conversation, he said, “Dr. Latting, you’re asking me to change my whole life.”  At that moment, I knew he got it and I determined to fight for him.

I said I wanted him to think deeply about it and to call me back once he had. He called me back two days later. Many youth in his community looked up to him and he wanted to lead them on the right path.  He was now realizing that he needed to do better by them and himself.

The purposes of punishment

I thought expulsion was much too harsh a sentence for someone who had not yet bought into the professional ethics we as social work faculty held so dear. Yet I also thought those professional ethics were not beyond his reach.

My sister, an attorney, explained to me there are five purposes of punishment: deterrenceincapacitationrehabilitationretribution, and restitution.[1]

  • Deterrence seeks to stop future occurrences by frightening off other would-be offenders (general deterrence) or by preventing the offender from repeating the offense for fear of repeating the punishment (specific deterrence).
  • Incapacitation removes the offender from society through imprisonment or other physical restraints, including the death penalty.
  • Rehabilitation seeks to prevent reoffending by reforming the offender.
  • Retribution seeks to satisfy the victim (or public) that the case is handled appropriately and to prevent personal revenge-seeking.
  • Restitution seeks to right the wrong by having the offender pay back the victim (financially) or society (community service).

Those who sought to expel Thomas wanted to incapacitate him from future social work practice, deter him from engaging in similar behavior (“once he’s kicked out, maybe he’ll realize what he did”), and inflict retribution on him directly  (“he deserves to be punished!”) or by assuring the field placement site that they had taken action (“we can’t let the field placement think we let him off the hook”). Those are actual quotes.

I, on the other hand, thought he could be rehabilitated.  I couldn’t imagine that expelling him would cause him to rethink his ways – rather, I feared it would make him bitter or even more cunning.  The question was, how could he be rehabilitated in a way that would actually cause him to rethink his behavior? 

To me, the solution was obvious. When my daughter (and nieces and nephews) were young and misbehaved, I required them to write out what was wrong with their actions, why it was wrong, and how it hurt someone.  Only when I was satisfied they understood their misbehavior did I allow them to apologize and make some form of restitution (my baseboards stayed clean during that time!). 

We were in an institution of higher learning with a working assumption that our task is to help young people learn and grow.  If ever there was a situation where someone needed us to extend the opportunity to learn and grow, this was it.  I decided to suggest to the faculty that the student be required to take an independent study on ethical leadership, write a paper about the principles of ethical leadership, and examine his actions in the context of those principles.  

The dilemma of being a “double minority”

The faculty meeting was tumultuous. To my surprise, I was highly emotional as I described what I saw in Thomas and why I thought he could be rehabilitated.  I did my best to explain that those who wanted him expelled were operating under the assumption that “everybody” shared their standards of right and wrong.  What I was thinking but didn’t say was that those were White middle-class standards.

This was nearly two decades ago and I had the classic dilemma of knowing this was a race/ethnicity/class divide we as a faculty were trying to bridge, yet not wanting to call it out as such. I was the only Black and one of a very few persons of color on the faculty.  In today’s world, the term “White privilege” is well understood among social work educators and others concerned with racial and social justice.  During those days, while we taught about race and social class, we seldom talked about how those issues affected us as faculty. 

The other swirling thought that stymied my ability to explain my thinking was the weight of being a double minority.  The term “double minority” is used two ways: to describe intersectionality (belonging to two minority social categories, e.g., a Black female) or to describe a person who belongs to a minority social category (in my case, person of color) and also holds a minority opinion (I was one of two faculty among 20 advocating for a rehabilitative versus punitive approach).  It was the latter definition that inhibited me.

Substantial research shows that double minorities lose credibility and influence when they are perceived to be acting in the self-interest of their group.[2]  A colleague sent me an article illustrating this principle at the time.  Two female reporters were working on a same-sex marriage story (prior to its legalization) and were pulled off the story after marriage equality became a reality and they got married. 

In a memo, the paper’s editor wrote: 

In the last few days, we have had numerous lengthy meetings and discussions about a conflict of interest issue surrounding the same sex marriage story. Specifically, the question was whether Rachel Gordon and Liz Mangelsdorf, having been married a few days ago, should continue to cover the same-sex marriage story in light of questions readers could - and do - ask about the newspaper's objectivity and integrity….

The issue here is most definitely not the integrity of the journalists themselves. In this case, we have complete confidence in Rachel and Liz as professionals, beyond question…. 

But the issue is the integrity and credibility of the paper, as well as conflict and the perception of conflict. We want to protect the paper and all the journalists here from any allegations of conflict to the degree possible.

While agreeing with the editor’s position, one columnist wondered how far this thinking should go:

Should a woman who’s had an abortion be allowed to cover the abortion issue?

Should black or Latino or any other minority reporters, especially those who have suffered personal discrimination because of their race or ethnicity, be allowed to cover stories that involve those issues?

Should a Jewish reporter or a Muslim reporter be allowed to cover hostilities in the Mideast?[3]

As my colleague explained in her note to me, the dilemma faced by double minorities is they may be generally regarded as:

(1) experts on issues relevant to those groups, or instead,

(2) biased on those issues, and therefore to be discounted.[4]

What rules apply when deciding whether justice is just?

Dumbfounded that I found myself in the position of being Exhibit A of the double minority dilemma that I taught about, I struggled to find my words.  Trying to ignore the skeptical faces of my colleagues,I explained that we as faculty take for granted that professional and personal norms require us to honor our commitments, and if we violate them, we own up to it rather than lying about it.

But that’s not how Thomas grew up!  In his community, getting out of trouble was more critical than getting caught in a lie.  He grew up under a different set of rules. Let’s give him a chance to learn our professional rules. 

Alexis Antoine on Unsplash

I could see I was getting nowhere with most of those in the room and to my dismay, started to cry in frustration. But then a White woman faculty member quietly said, “Jean, explain it again.”  Her questioning face in the midst of my inner turmoil gave me the reassurance I needed to keep going. 

I calmed myself down and explained again that he had grown up under circumstances where gaming authority figures was expected. He knew he was violating rules, but he didn’t have any reason to expect that it would have such dire consequences.  He was operating under a different set of values and priorities that had worked for him the past.  I talked with him, I argued to the faculty, and he understands now that he is in a different arena.  He can learn. He is willing to learn if we give him a chance. 

I explained the independent study concept as the opportunity for him to dig deep into professional ethics, something he had not had all that much exposure to.  He wanted to be a leader and role model in his community, so ethical leadership would appeal to him. 

The faculty member turned to one of the other members and said, we attended a workshop about this – about not assuming those we teach share our values as educators.  That comment broke the logjam.  More questions and then the faculty voted to approve him staying, with probation and successful completion of the ethical leadership independent study as a condition.  A faculty member who had been mentoring him and was trying to help me explain it to the others volunteered to oversee the independent study. The penalty was that he had to pay for this extra course and his graduation was delayed by a semester.

The value of restorative justice

At the time I was hyper-focused on saving this young man from a disastrous future, so I had a rehabilitative approach to his punishment.  In hindsight, I didn’t focus as much on those he harmed: the field placement site and the field office at the College.  His actions had had real consequences.  Had I focused on them, I would have added some form of concrete restitution to both as part of the package. 

By combining rehabilitation with restitution, I was taking a restorative rather than punitive approach to Thomas’s transgressions.   

Over the last 20 years, restorative justice has blossomed as a way to bring the wrongdoer and those whom they have harmed into a process of active dialogue and accountability.  The process provides a framework for the offender to understand, acknowledge, and take responsibility for the choices they made that resulted in sometimes terrible harm to others, while allowing the victim the opportunity to have the extent of their wounds heard. 

Restorative justice does not assume that what was lost can ever be regained, nor does it assume that the victim will offer forgiveness, although some do.  Rather, the goal is for both to heal to the extent they can.  

Restorative justice does not condone cheap apologies, nor cheap grace. The offender must have the courage to be held personally accountable by the victim as the true authority on the meaning of the wrong that was done. Facilitated restorative justice dialogues between victim and offender are most often held face-to-face.  They often require months of preparation and may be held prior to prison sentencing, while the offender is in prison, or after release.   

What makes the offender capable of learning from the experience?  Some studies have shown that listening to the stories of the person they offended – and stories of other victims who were targets of similar harm by the offender – have helped the offender to move beyond denial and face the consequences of their actions.   

Society benefits.  Multiple studies have led to the conclusion that restorative justice conferences are a cost-effective way of reducing the frequency of repeat offending by the consenting offenders.[5] 

Although restorative justice programs are spreading, the punitive approach is still dominant.  Forces for a punitive approach include media accounts of crimes of wrongdoing and calls to “bring the offender to justice” or “hold him accountable.”  Usually that phraseology implies punitive punishment, “making him pay.” 

Restorative approaches are often supported by victims who want to restore a sense of balance in their lives.[6]  For the general public, according to research, a major factor in supporting restorative justice is a belief that the offender can change.[7] 

And that, in a nutshell, was what we were up against. There were some faculty who believed he was a liar and a cheat and would never reform.  In fact, someone told me I had been hoodwinked.  This person demonstrated a fixed mindset toward Thomas by seeing him as incorrigible.  On the other hand, I looked at Thomas through the lens of a growth mindset[8] and saw a young man who wanted a new chance in life. “Dr. Latting, you’re asking me to change my whole life,” was the cry of someone who wanted to grow beyond his limitations. 

Volumes have been written about the disproportionate blame and penalties that are applied to people of color in the criminal justice system and organizations.  Lives have been ruined.  I shudder to think what being kicked out of school might have done to a young man of color who was ready to consider making a life change. 

Fortunately, we as faculty were willing to consider alternatives, including the possibility that we ourselves had blind spots. By delaying his graduation and allowing him to conduct the independent study, the faculty implicitly adhered to these justice guidelines:

  • Justice is served when people are treated fairly. Fairness is determined by equitable treatment, not equal treatment. When considering troublesome situations, the situations of our students matter.  It is more fair to individualize than to treat all students the same.
  • We adopt a growth mindset and allow for the possibility that people can change. Because of this, we favor restorative or rehabilitative justice over punitive justice.
  • When considering who might be regarded as a legitimate justice advocate, we recognize the special circumstance of the double minority.  We choose to regard their advocacy as reflective of their special insider knowledge rather than discount their advocacy as biased self-interest.

Epilogue:  Thomas wrote an excellent paper on ethical leadership and graduated a semester later than his colleagues. Was he in fact rehabilitated?  I’m pleased to report that we have stayed in touch through the years.  Last contact with him, he was in a high level position of leadership that required background checks and extensive trust in his integrity.

 

Charles Deloye on Unsplash

Questions to ask ourselves:

  1. In general, do you tend to favor punitive or restorative form of justice?
  2. How would you have handled this situation?

Leading Consciously concepts and skills covered in this blog post:

  • Building effective relationships
    • Develop skills in inquiry and openness
    • Engage in powerful listening
  • Initiating change
    • Commit to personal change
    • Emphasize changing systems, not individuals
    • Learn from resistance
    • Surface undiscussables
    • Increase accountability

#BeAccountable   #BridgingDifferences    #EquityandInclusion   #OrganizationalChange    #RestorativeJustice   #BeAnActiveAlly


[1]  The purposes of punishment. Criminal Law. Provided by: University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing.

[2] Bazarova, N. N., J. B. Walther, et al. (2012). "Minority Influence in Virtual Groups: A Comparison of Four Theories of Minority Influence." Communication research 39(3): 295-316.

[3] Shaw. D.  If gay journalists marry, is credibility in question.  LA Times.

[4] Personal communication with Diana Storms, 3/17/2004

[5] Sherman, L. W., H. Strang, et al. (2015). "Are Restorative Justice Conferences Effective in Reducing Repeat Offending? Findings from a Campbell Systematic Review." Journal of quantitative criminology 31(1): 1-24.

[6] Callender, J. S. (2020). "Justice, Reciprocity and the Internalisation of Punishment in Victims of Crime." Neuroethics 13(1): 43-54.

[7] Moss, S. A., E. Lee, et al. (2019). "When Do People Value Rehabilitation and Restorative Justice Over the Punishment of Offenders?" Victims & offenders 14(1): 32-51

[8] Latting, J. K.  How to stop racist statements from someone you love.  Leading Consciously blog #15.

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