Pubdate: Sat, 13 Apr 2002
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2002 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Thom Marshall


RONNIE EARLE seems like a good old boy.

I'd heard about him and his ideas for using restorative justice and have 
been wanting to meet him for a good while. Finally got the chance this week.

Ronnie Earle is not one of those first name-middle name combinations that 
we are fond of using in Texas. Like Jim Bob something or Tommy Lee whatsit 
or John Will whoever. Earle is his last name.

He is district attorney of Travis County and has been for the past quarter 
of a century. He jokes that a waitress in a little town up close to Dallas 
once said to him, "the man at the table over there wants to know if you're 
the district eternity of Austin."

Earle was in Houston on Wednesday and Thursday for the drug war conference 
at Rice University's Baker Institute. Title of his speech was "Restoring 
Respect for Our Law, Our Communities, and Ourselves: Drug Policy and 

Toughness doesn't stop crime He said that when he started out in the 
district attorney business he believed the definition of justice was 
vengeance, so he was tough on crime. And he still does try to convict the 
dangerous criminals and imprison them for as long as possible.

But he said, "no matter how tough I was, it didn't make crime victims 
happy, and it didn't often provide more than momentary respite from their 
pain. And it didn't stop crime."

He got tired of having to wait for something terrible to happen before he 
could do anything, and then he kept doing "the same thing over and over and 
expecting a different result."

So he began to try innovations such as a Public Integrity Unit, a Family 
Justice Division, a Children's Advocacy Center, a Child Protection Team, to 
name a few, "some of which are now mandated by statute," he said.

But he wasn't satisfied, because none of the improvements changed the basic 
idea of the system, "which is payback, as in, you do it and we'll get you."

Earle said that our justice system, handed down from William the Conqueror, 
who used it to control the population, asks: Who did it? What law did they 
break? How can we punish them?

This system, said Earle, "removed the dispute from the community by taking 
ownership of peace itself and making crime a disturbance of the king's 
peace. To this day, indictments in Texas end with the words, 'Against the 
peace and dignity of the State,' with the State the lineal descendant of 
the king.

"The point of the law was upholding the authority of the king. The point 
was not the victim and not the community."

Earle said he grew interested in restorative justice (an even older concept 
than Conquering Willie's retributive system) "because it is victim-centered 
and it requires thinking about crime in terms of the harm done."

The questions asked by restorative justice are: What is the harm? What 
needs to be done to repair the harm? Who is responsible for repairing the harm?

Earle called a neighborhood meeting after a drug sweep resulted in the 
arrests of many young men and women who had been dealing drugs in the very 
front yards of the neighbors who had complained to police. At the meeting 
were many of the neighbors, the cops involved, some prosecutors, some 
probation officers, and others.

Getting input from community Earle said he asked the neighbors what his 
office should do with the people arrested.

"We were sitting in a circle, some 40 or 50 of us, and the first time the 
discussion went around, the response was something like, 'Lock 'em all up,' 
" he said. "There then ensued a dialogue during which both anger and 
helplessness were expressed, especially when it was pointed out that the 
punishment for dealing small amounts of drugs was a maximum of two years."

The offenders would be coming back before very long. While they were gone, 
who would care for their children?

"These neighbors and friends were living the ripple effects of the war on 
drugs not always perceived by policy-makers," Earle said.

We'll have to wait until next time to discuss what happened after that meeting.
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