This piece on De-Bug’s “Social Biography Video” concept will appear in the next edition of “Cornerstone”, the quarterly journal for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.
I have sat in countless courtrooms alongside families whose loved ones are being sentenced. After these hearings most families — in the parking lot, at home, or elsewhere — will ask for one wish. That wish is not that this never happened, or that they could rewind time and rewrite history. Rather, families often state: “I just wish they knew him like we know him.”
The people referred to as “they” are the prosecutors, the judges, and sometimes even the defense attorneys. Families and loved ones wish their son, daughter, father, or mother could be understood by those making life-altering decisions beyond the simple information contained a police report or case file. Families want their loved ones to be understood as human, with the complexities and richness of their lives as part of that knowledge. People wish that the collateral damage of incarceration on a family would be more fully known, understood, and considered by the institutions of the court. They want their lives, and the impact of the court’s decisions, to be understood – truly understood – not limited by the narrow lens of an assembly-line type court proceeding.
But in courts across the country, the input of family and community is regularly sidelined from the decision-making process. The result is a tunnel-vision understanding of the defendant – stripped of the larger story of family, community, future, and history (a history which includes more than past convictions). Of course, while on paper the depiction seems reasonable – the State vs. “Some lone individual” — that surgical removal of someone’s life context from the people around him or her is not reality. One quick glance into the audience seats at court and it is evident: despite how a person may be painted, even the accused is loved.
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