By Dorothy Johnson-Speight
As we observe Victim Rights Awareness Week, I call on our community to ensure that all victim families receive appropriate access to support, counseling, healing, and restorative services, no matter where they are emotionally.
Often, the victims with the most punitive perspectives receive the most encouragement, attention, and validation. Yet perspectives vary, as we at the nonprofit Mothers in Charge have discovered among the people we serve.
How do we care for those victims who want second chances for those convicted of serious crimes? How will we care for victims from the most underserved communities? They need support to navigate through some old and maybe some new emotions.
I know the pain of losing a child to violence.
My firstborn son, Khaaliq, was murdered on Dec. 6, 2001. Khaaliq graduated from the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, in 1999, determined to make a difference in the lives of children deemed to be at risk. My husband had worked overtime at the U.S. Postal Service - and sometimes took on an extra job - to send our son to school. A week before he was killed, Khaaliq was accepted into a graduate degree program in Delaware.
Khaaliq was a kind, loving person. He was a peacemaker, and I don't remember him even getting into a fight growing up. He never gave me trouble and was what any mother would call a "good boy." The person who killed him was a deeply troubled man who caused harm to many people. Many systems failed, including some that should have intervened to help the offender earlier and might have saved my son's life.
Two years after Khaaliq's death and after several other young men were killed in my neighborhood, I had a vision to start an organization, Mothers in Charge, to work to end the violence in Philadelphia. We advocate for families affected by violence and provide counseling and grief services to families when a loved one is murdered.
Over the coming months and years, people who were sentenced as children or youths to life in prison without the possibility of parole will be considered for parole or sentencing adjustments. This is the result of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, which found that it is unconstitutional to impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences upon kids. There will be hundreds of cases; Pennsylvania leads the world in the number of children it has sentenced to life without parole, even as the practice has been abandoned elsewhere.
The review period of these cases likely will be challenging for everyone involved. Family members of the people serving these sentences will be hopeful and nervous about the potential outcomes. The individuals whose sentences are being reviewed, many of whom are decades older than when they committed these crimes as still-developing children, will be anxious, realizing this review may determine whether they die in prison.
Of course, much attention will be paid to the impact on the families of victims. Some will be angry and will hold on to the belief that those involved in the deaths of their loved ones should die in prison. Others will believe that over the years, the incarcerated individuals have had a chance to change.
Grief and healing look different for different people. For some, healing is possible only when they continue to advocate long prison terms. Other survivors feel compelled by their beliefs or by their healing to call for reforms of our laws or to advocate on behalf of individual offenders. Both are legitimate responses.
As we move forward, Mothers in Charge will continue to affirm the feelings of all victims. It is my hope that all other agencies addressing the needs of victims will do the same.
This moment will test who we are as a community. Pennsylvania has an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to traditionally underserved communities, which are disproportionately affected by violence - an opportunity to intervene in the shattered lives of youths before they end in tragedy.
We will either find ways to pull together, or we will drift farther apart.