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Two people hold hands through prison bars, a concept of restorative justice.
Photo by bunroong on Depositphotos

In the last two decades, the practice of restorative justice — which, in the United States, has its roots in Indigneous peacemaking practices — has grown rapidly as a tool for resolving lower-level offenses and some violent felonies.

Restorative justice often entails meetings between the person who was harmed and the person who caused the harm. The two parties discuss how to address each other’s needs after a crime. 

Rather than being hurried to the back of the courtroom and asked to stay out of the way, victims and their families are given a voice in their cry for justice. Offenders are also educated to understand the impact of their crime, which helps us put a face on the victims of our actions. With restorative justice, more attention is placed on victims, where it should be. 

But many crimes impact people beyond the immediate victim. One example of this is the family of the person who committed the crime. When we are arrested for our crime, our family is often overlooked, taken for granted and expected to stand beside us. But consider what it’s like to have a family member in prison. 

Francisco Palomino, who is serving 23 years in Mule Creek State Prison, in California, reflected on his family’s response to his incarceration. 

“After my dad passed away, and my brother and I went to prison, it devastated my mom. She felt like she had three deaths in her family,” Palomino said. “My brother and sister were left to answer questions and make excuses for what I did. Mom was disappointed and confused. She couldn’t understand what I was thinking and had a hard time accepting what I did.”

If we are blessed enough to have a loving family who is willing to stand behind us, we owe it to them to acknowledge the sacrifices they make for us, to count the sleepless nights they endure and to recognize the unfair guilt they experience on our behalf. They need restorative justice too. 

Even as society offers us little empathy due to our senseless acts of violence, it is up to us to provide our families comfort for the grief we have caused them. We must provide them with answers to their unspoken questions and give them confidence that we will fix what we have broken. 

No doubt, we have spilled much ink over the years trying to find the right words to tell loved ones how sorry we are. But perhaps the best way to say sorry is through our personal accomplishments — that is, growing beyond the people we were when we committed our crimes. We must be accountable for our actions and accept full responsibility for our conduct. 

It might hurt to think of our family as our victims too. But the sooner we come to terms with what we put them through, the sooner we can all heal and move forward together, toward a healthier life. 

(Additional reporting by PJP)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Ricky A. Ortega is a writer for the The Mule Creek Post, a newspaper published out of Mule Creek State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated.