Treating the wounds of crime

Prosecutor Henry Shea brings mercy to criminal justice

Henry Shea

Working within the current U.S. criminal justice system, it is no simple task to heal the wounds of crime. While victims may serve as witnesses, the procedures and trial do not generally address the injury to relationships. For those who have been convicted, a system focused on punishment often neglects the delicate task of creating ways to help them express remorse and to reintegrate into the larger community.
At a certain point in his 20-year career as a federal prosecutor, Henry (Hank) Shea, shifted gears. He took time out from his current work at the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis, Minnesota to speak with Living City about this change.

How would you describe your approach to criminal prosecution in the early years of your career?

My initial approach was to hold lawbreakers accountable in an unforgiving way. I often took on cases against people of privilege who were viewed as difficult to prosecute because they were not “bad” persons: lawyers, doctors and bankers, many who were highly regarded and well known in the community. For me, nobody was above the law. As a federal prosecutor, I regularly would prosecute to the fullest extent of the law the crimes that could be readily proven, starting with the most serious crimes. I did not consider mercy as part of my job description. That was up to the court.

Nancy O'Donnell di New York

attivista nel difendere i Diritti umani dal proprio vissuto scopre la "vera giustizia".

Nancy O'Donnell from Living City February 2010

Is love strong enough to bring about true justice?

A civil rights activist finds answers and direction for her life

As a child I was a passionate champion for the oppressed. When I was six, some kids from a neighboring block came over and made fun of my girlfriend’s brother, who was deaf and could not speak. I was so incensed that when they came back I got my stick. It was lightweight but gave quite a sting to the legs of those boys. They went running and never came back.

Elizabeth Schiltz is a law professor and mother of four. While pregnant with her third child, she learned he had Down syndrome.

From Living City October 2009

What was it like to receive the news that your child had Down syndrome?

My husband and I are Catholic and have always been pro-life. Having counseled pregnant women in crisis through the Birthright program, there was no question in my mind that we would welcome any child we had.

My brother is mentally retarded, so the general idea of having a child with a disability did not frighten me. But when we got the diagnosis, it was earth shattering. For weeks I did not want to touch my belly, because the baby inside me had become a stranger to me. The day we got the final test results I left work in tears, went into a bookstore and bought every book I could find on Down syndrome.

Georgia Justice Project

The Georgia Justice Project (GJP) is a legal nonprofit organization in Atlanta.

As our website describes us, we are “an unlikely mix of lawyers, social workers and a landscaping company. GJP defends people accused of crimes and, win or lose we stand with our clients while they rebuild their lives. We believe this is the only way to break the cycle of crime and poverty.”

The work we do is not easy. In fact, many lawyers who serve those accused of crimes have become disillusioned, disheartened and disconnected from their clients. But what I have come to realize is that our approach of practicing law is a salvation. We aren’t just saving our clients—we are saving a small part of our profession from a pernicious condition of the heart. We are saving ourselves from the effects of isolation, alienation, cynicism and hopelessness.
Our approach to criminal defense and rehabilitation is based on a relationship- and community-oriented ethic. A client is usually referred to the Georgia Justice Project because they have a criminal case pending and cannot afford to hire a lawyer. We accept only clients who are willing to make a serious commitment to changing their lives to ensure that they move beyond the social, emotional and personal challenges that may have contributed to their legal problems.

The legal intake assessment is only the beginning of the process. It is followed by an assessment in which social services staff meets with the client, and evaluates the client’s strengths, needs and goals in light of their current legal situation. If there is a good match between client needs and our resources, the client is accepted as a probationary client for a period of four weeks, during which time he or she meets with the social service team to develop and implement an individualized treatment program. The agreements are contractual, and staff will terminate the contracts if clients are not willing to work towards improving their life and complying with their service contract.

In the United States, many criminal defense attorneys never ask their clients for the truth. In contrast, at GJP, we directly ask our clients whether they have committed the crime of which they are accused. If they tell us that they are guilty, we begin the process of helping them begin to accept responsibility for their actions and examine how they can rectify the harm that they caused to the individual and the community. If they say they are innocent, we believe our clients and advocate for their rights based on that premise.

One of the novelties of our approach is that lawyers work closely with professionals in other disciplines, which is unusual in the United States. Studies have shown that the underlying problems that brought the offender into the system—addiction, domestic unrest, mental illness, impulse control—are most successfully addressed by tapping the expertise of social workers, mental health experts, or other non-lawyer professionals. We believe that providing this “wraparound”, comprehensive set of social services is one of the most effective ways to prevent future crime.
If our clients are convicted and sent to prison, we maintain our relationship: we visit, we write, we accept collect calls, we provide emotional support for their family.

Often an initial set of legal problems has a “snowball effect” and creates a multitude of new problems for many of our clients. For this reason, once released from prison or jail, we offer a variety of social services to our clients, including individual and group counseling, high school degree and literacy classes, monthly support dinners and employment with our landscaping company. It is not unusual for our staff members to spend time every week with clients whose legal cases have been resolved for years.

Our office is located just a few steps away from the tomb of Martin Luther King, Jr. His dream of the Beloved Community encouraged us to see our futures intertwined with those of our neighbors, and helped us move from a selfish and self-centered approach to life towards a community and relationship-oriented one. At the Georgia Justice Project, this is what we strive for in our everyday efforts, struggles and triumphs.

Experience of Alternative Justice

For the past three years, I have headed the Center for Analysis and Resolution of Conflicts at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP). I am responsible for mediating conflicts between mining companies and farming communities.

The law must provide society with solutions to conflicts between its members. Civil jurisdiction usually belongs to the State. But today the Peruvian government fails to ensure that civil jurisdiction administers justice in a timely manner and at an affordable price. We frequently see that justice delayed is justice denied.

A Lawer

In November 2004, I received a request from a colleague to come to the aid of a French citizen living in Cameroon who was being prosecuted by the Police Commissioner of the DGRE, the Cameroon Bureau of Investigation.

I agreed to help and we met with him. He explained to us that he had recently ended a relationship with a woman who, in retaliation, had contacted all of the police departments in Douala as well as the DGRE. The DGRE Commissioner had then called the man and asked him to appear at the police station with two million Francs (approximately $4,000).


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