My daughter recently asked me what should happen to people who hurt others. There's no easy answer, but as someone who lost one brother, Damani, to murder and another, Terrell, to prison, I know revenge and justice are not the same thing. Damani is gone. Terrell is serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, which is death by incarceration. He is also gone. No matter how sorry he is, no matter how much he changes over time, he will die in prison without his family.
A recent report shows how common the sentence of death by incarceration is in Pennsylvania, even for many people who, like Terrell, made grave mistakes when they were young, but never intended to kill anyone. And, like Terrell, they will pay for their youthful mistakes for the rest of their lives.
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None of this was supposed to happen to a family like mine. Our friends compared us to the Huxtables: a middle-class, two-parent, educated Philadelphia family. Our doting father was an educator, specializing in African American history. He taught the children in our community, and his children, that although society sends you a million signals that you're worthless, you come from African kings and queens. Have pride, respect yourselves: You have a legacy to live up to.
When I was two months pregnant, my little brother Damani was shot. He was 23. My world was shattered. The police identified the likely shooter but didn't have enough evidence to bring charges. I didn't care, I wanted the shooter to pay. When some family members said they planned to seek revenge, I was all for it. Luckily, nothing came of this. Several years later, we learned that the suspect killed someone else and was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. I waited for the knot in my stomach to ease, for my heart to be made whole, but none of that happened.
Four years earlier, my older brother, Terrell, was sentenced to life in prison for his role in a murder, committed during what he thought would be a robbery. He was also 23. During his 26 years in prison, Terrell has worked hard on himself. He reads voraciously. He writes. He will soon get a Villanova degree. Most important, he's sorry. He's become a caring adult who understands he played a role in taking another young man's life. But Terrell had to come to his remorse on his own because uniting people is not part of our criminal justice system. Even the courtroom setup divides us: the victim's people on one side, defendant's on the other.
I, too, realized that I can't ask for forgiveness if I can't give it, so I forgave my brother's killer. Just as Terrell has a story, so does the man who shot Damani. To heal, we must be open to one another's stories, and that means not sentencing anyone to die in prison, without giving one the chance to turn things around.
The parole system is not a get-out-of-jail-free card; it gives people an opportunity to show meaningful change. My brother's dream is to be released and help young people find their path and avoid his. But the justice system wants him to rot in a cage, with taxpayers funding his incarceration as he grows old. For what? To prove a point?
Recently, State Sen. Sharif Street pushed a bill, SB942, that would introduce the possibility of parole for life sentences. Unfortunately, the night before the bill was set to be voted out of committee, the legislation was withdrawn after objections from victims' groups. Those victims do not speak for me.
For those who conflate justice with revenge, I get it. I'm not here to tell you how to feel. But at the very least, our justice system should know the difference.