Escaping the Thief Label, Making Amends, and Moving Forward. A reflection on STEP

CJAM volunteer Amani Khoury reflects on her experience attending STEP, CJAM’s Shoplifting and Theft Education Program…

Everyone is seated at a table, looking slightly uninterested and hesitant at the same time.  The mediator clears his throat and asks everyone to share their names.  His voice has a calming presence.  They slowly make their way around the table, with the tension gradually dying as more voices are heard; they are all in this together.  Their stories are different, with unique motivations and feelings about what had happened, but one outcome was the same, they had all ended up here.  They felt hurt, cheated, frustrated, and as the night went on, the root of these feelings became clear.  These people were stuck in a system that they felt they could not escape, and were worried they had earned their “thief” label for life.

There is a stigma surrounding anyone who has committed a crime, whether it was a small lapse in judgment or a premeditated, calculated attack; we see them differently.  They are “others”.  We think we’d never do something like that, and since we think we will never be associated with that group, we judge them.  After hearing their stories, I began letting go of my harsh judgments.  These people described their misdemeanors as “a moment of weakness” and something that “does not fit their personal character”.  This one act is not their whole story.  People are too quick to write each other off; we must be more open to objectively listening to stories such as these.  We cannot let someone’s “moment of weakness” be the moment that defines their entire life.

As I learned more about the people participating in the restorative justice process, I felt closer to them, something that is vital if the stigma surrounding offenders is going to be lifted.  There were two stories in particular to which I felt I could personally relate.  One was the story of a quiet, teenage girl who had stolen some clothing because she did not have anything that fit her anymore.  She expressed how she felt embarrassed and just wanted to fit in.  The other, a girl who was on a strict budget but was very insecure about her skin, had decided to take a tube of concealer.  These girls did not fit the stereotype I had created of someone who would steal.  They stole because they felt they had no other options.  I know the pressure society places on girls to look their best, and sometimes feeling like you will never measure up.  I understand that they felt like they had no other option.  While their motivations had driven them to more desperate measures than I would have taken, I too, have felt those same pressures.  As I heard their stories, I lost some unsubstantiated judgments and began to gain empathy.

Restorative justice is here to help people move forward from their mistakes by taking genuine responsibility for their actions, by making plans to avoid these behaviors in the future, and by making amends.  They had been labeled, lost trust within their families, lost employment opportunities, fallen out of relationships, and generally were ashamed. Not only does this give offenders the opportunity to have one-time mistakes expunged from their records, it helps them learn from the mistake, reinforcing values they may have already held or possibly giving them a new perspective and altering their values in favor of a better life.  It gives a second chance.