Each story swerves from despair to hope, sometimes several times. As men and women step to the microphone at the Smart Justice Symposium on Saturday, they share troubling testimony of criminal childhoods, institutional injustice, abuse and often redemption.
"Once I hit the meth world," a woman says, "I started racking up felonies."
A man steps forward to talk about his 17 felony convictions and the many times the system gave up on him. Another man rises. Police caught him selling methamphetamine in 2003, the pinnacle of a lifelong career in crime.
"I was raised a criminal," he says. "That's just how my house was."
But each story eventually reaches a tipping point in which the narrator gets a new chance or embraces a revelation. Every speaker took advantage of treatment and now works with community groups to reform the criminal justice system. The crowd of nearly 300 symposium attendees applauds when the speakers share that they have since left probation, graduated college, or stayed seven years sober.
Social worker Layne Pavey describes how she found herself in federal court on drug conspiracy charges. She felt hopeless and ashamed until a social worker visited her in jail and helped her find a path out. Since then, she has earned her master's from Eastern Washington University and started an advocacy group, I Did The Time, to push for felon employment equality.
"Shame and stigma keep us separated," Pavey says of the importance of sharing personal struggles. "Until [people] actually see us and hear our stories, they don't really understand."
Many Smart Justice advocates have pushed for the adoption of evidence-based practices to reshape the justice system around proven treatment and rehabilitation strategies, but Saturday's symposium also served as an opportunity to emphasize the personal impact and power of narrative. Pavey and other ex-offenders led a workshop dedicated to channeling emotional experiences into compelling arguments for reforming the justice system.
"People don't always remember what you said," she says, "but they remember how you made them feel."
Keynote speaker Julian Adler, director of the Red Hook Community Justice Center in New York, explains that data can provide insight into trends, but what a system does with that information still depends on local values. Does a high risk to reoffend mean a person needs intense treatment or prison?
Personal stories can have a powerful effect on priorities. They also recognize the dignity of the individual, which encourages "procedural fairness" across the system. If defendants feel the system treats them fairly, Adler says, they will be more likely to comply or follow through on treatment.
Speaker Jennifer Kim, with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in California, also discussed the importance of building public policy campaigns around sympathetic spokespeople and memorable stories.
"Statistics don't go viral," she notes.
Speaking at a workshop on mental health, Smart Justice organizer Shelly Wynecoop asks everyone to take home a list of contact information for city and county officials in the justice system. She then challenges the group to reach out to their officials to share their struggles and experiences.
"We've been hearing a lot of stories today and that is intentional," she says. "A lot of these things become very abstract to people unless they can see that there is an individual who had something happen in their own life. ... These stories are paramount." ♦