ALABAMA: May 20 2002
Program puts healing in justice system

By Todd Kleffman

Montgomery Advertiser

MONTGOMERY --

Jaime Hampton didn't like the idea of an up close and personal meeting with the two young men who killed her younger brother.

"It was the most difficult thing I had to do in my life, just facing them," Hampton, 17, said. "Meeting them was something I had shunned. I held up a lot of anger toward them that first year. Seeing them face-to-face was a good chance to release that and get the healing process going forward." 

Jaime and her family met Allen "Casey" Luster and Michael Ferguson earlier this year through the fledgling Victim-Offender Conferencing program in Montgomery County Circuit Judge Tracy McCooey's court.

 Luster and Ferguson, both 18, are serving three-year sentences after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the deaths of 9-year-old Jonathan Hampton and the family's adopted "grandmother," Mary Parker, 89. The two teens were drag racing at 88 mph along Fairgrounds Road when Luster's car struck the Hampton's van as it backed out of the family's driveway in September 2000.

While Jaime Hampton struggled with the idea of a conference with her two peers, Luster looked forward to meeting with the Hamptons.

"When I first heard about it, it was a big thing for me to do," Luster said Friday. "It was a blessing for me to get to talk to them and listen to what they had to say. After the program, I felt good inside."

Bringing together the Hamptons with Luster and Ferguson is one of the biggest success stories of the program, which began in July as the first of its kind in Alabama. It's part of what's called restorative justice, which seeks to go beyond the punitive measures of the criminal justice system to create better results for those on both sides of a crime.

"The court system is a very sterile, unfriendly place and a lot of people walk out of the courtroom really angry, feeling like nobody cared about them," McCooey said. "We've got to make people feel more part of the system and this is a way to do that."

Since the program began with a $5,000 grant from the state Supreme Court, 18 cases have been referred to the program and seven have been completed. The confidential program is strictly voluntary and both parties must agree to participate. McCooey mentions the option at the completion of all criminal cases in her court.

Once a conference is set, a trained volunteer facilitator serves as referee as both parties get a chance to talk out their experiences related to the crime that connects them. Twenty-one volunteers have been trained to facilitate the conferences through McCooey's court.

The conference is a chance for victims to ask questions of the perpetrators that otherwise might go unanswered and "eat away at victims for years," McCooey said.

While the conference doesn't affect the punishment meted out by the judge, McCooey said that she tries to incorporate sentencing recommendations that come out of the process if both parties agree. It has led to some creative sentences, she said.

One woman who was the victim of theft committed by her son requested that her son attend church every Sunday and McCooey made that part of his sentence. The Hamptons requested that Luster and Ferguson pay $46,000 each in restitution and speak to teen-agers about the dangers and consequences of irresponsible driving when they are released.

"It's not about the money," said Barry Hampton, Jonathan and Jaime's father. "It's to make these kids realize you have to restore back what you took away. That kind of responsibility is what we're lacking in society."

Luster said he readily agreed to the Hampton's request.

"I would do anything I could to help myself and make sure other people don't make the same mistake I did," Luster said.

Barry Hampton, pastor of Grace Bible Church and host of the Sunday morning television program "Absolute Truth," and his wife, Brenda have maintained an amazing grace in dealing with the loss of their son. Through their faith, the Hamptons said they were almost immediately able to begin moving beyond Jonathan's death and looking for ways to help Luster and Ferguson repair themselves as well. They participated in the conference not so much for themselves, they said, as for the two men responsible.

"It was a tragedy, yes, but what are you going to do, not accept it? We're Christians. We know the Lord uses a lot of things to teach his lessons," Barry Hampton said.

"We know they did this crime, but they were young and we were hoping they could learn from this. They've been very receptive to what we said."

The Hamptons said they plan to stay involved with Luster and Ferguson after they are released from prison. Luster said he, too, wants to continue the relationship that was fostered by the Hampton's grace and the conferencing program.

"They have been wonderful people and I look at them as like part of my family now," he said. "I'm looking forward to getting to know them better. I think it will help me feel better about myself."

While restorative justice is designed primarily to help victims feel more satisfied with the criminal justice system, the conferencing program also pays dividends with offenders. By learning from the victims the consequences of their crimes, offenders are less likely to become repeat offenders, McCooey said. States that have used victim-offender conferencing for years have seen a significant reduction in the number of inmates who return to prison after committing other crimes, she said.

Lucia Penland, the facilitator who worked with the Hamptons, said restorative justice programs help put humanity and honesty back into the court system. Too often offenders use deceit as their legal strategy hoping for an acquittal or lesser sentence, rather than accept responsibility for their actions and truly facing  the consequences, she said. Paying a debt to society by sitting in jail usually doesn't help the offenders, victims or society at large, Penland said. 

McCooey said that it is the victims of the more serious crimes such as rape and the families of those who were murdered who have the most to gain from conferencing.

"There is more psychological damage inflicted in those cases that needs to be healed," she said.

Because the program is new and untested in Alabama, McCooey said some people look on the program as "too touchy-feely." But she's happy with the number of cases who have tried the process so far, and the outcomes.

"If there's a victim involved, I recommend it," the judge said. "It's something we need to try. If we don't try it, how are we going to know if it works or not?" Todd Kleffman can be reached at 240-0114, by fax at 261-1521 or by e-mail.