Category Archives: SOCIAL JUSTICE


“It is hereby declared to be the policy of this state to secure the rights, constitutional or otherwise, of persons who, because of a non-English-speaking cultural background, are unable to readily understand or communicate in the English language, and who consequently cannot be fully protected in legal proceedings unless qualified interpreters are available to assist them.”

This statement is a direct quote from state law where I live.  A question that comes up at times from people who “don’t get out much” is why refugees don’t go back to their home countries, or learn English.  I would like to explore ways to respond.  I don’t expect anyone reading my blog to be asking them, but you may be called upon to answer them some time.  Answering them with some compassion for the ignorance of the questioner goes a lot further toward opening hearts than a slap or a scolding.  So what are some kinder, more effective responses?

Let us take a typical language service recipient now residing in a country with more stability or economic opportunities.   To find out where these refugees come from, one could draw a geopolitical map of war zones, social unrest, and economic devastation.  Throw in a few natural disasters, and you end up with a solid list of countries of origin for language service recipients in our courtrooms and hospitals.  But who cares about them, right?  They should just go home.  This is our place, and they have theirs.

When people share that sentiment with me, I invite them to try and put themselves for a moment in the refugee’s place, on a small scale:  Your house just burned down and is now a dangerous charred remnant of itself with bared electrical wires and leaking pipes.  These things sometimes happen.  No question that you would do your best to find somewhere else to sleep.  And of course it would add insult to injury if anyone suggested you just “go home”.   So I ask the “let’s deport them” crowd to educate themselves so they truly understand the state of that home (country) before they would condemn refugees to return to it.  One needs a viable home to return to.  That is only human.

The refugees we meet from across the globe for the most part would absolutely LOVE to have a viable home to go back to.  They would love to have their whole family intact, everyone alive and healthy.   They would love to have a safe and peaceful, economically stable place to live.  They prefer, as we all do, to live in a place with clean air, clean drinking water, and no border disputes.  They would love to do simple things we take for granted, like have their kids go to school.  Sleep in their own home without the risk of being bombed or having a child recruited for war.  These are things we all want, on the human level.  For some of us, fate has placed us where we can get all this.

Let’s move on the language.  Okay, they are here, but why can’t they just learn English?  Let’s take two typical workers.  One is a hotel maid.  She has a boss who speaks her native language.  She works alone and is actually not supposed to talk to the other maids.  She is also prohibited from chatting with hotel guests.  She is only allowed to give a quick greeting, such as good morning, or call out “housekeeping” as she enters a room.  Her job is harder than it was a decade ago because the hotels have increased the old 8 rooms per day to 13 or 14 rooms a day, so she runs all day.  She gets home tired and cooks for the family and no, she does not make it to community college for those English classes.

Meet her husband, a prep cook at a local restaurant.  His boss is a native speaker of his home language, and so are the other kitchen staff.  He does not serve or wait on any customers, so he does not practice English as work.  He takes second shifts whenever he can, so he does not make it to English classes either.  And these two workers had only a couple years each in elementary school.  Then it was time to work in the fields or in the home.  So if they somehow manage to sign up for English classes, they are not well equipped to study.  Even when their growing children try to teach them, it can be hard for them to learn more than very rudimentary phrases.  Or to learn to pronounce things well enough.  Let alone become fluent enough to understand doctors and lawyers.

It is hard for people who have not traveled to have a sense of what it is like to move about the world.  The world is so overwhelmingly huge, and we are so infinitesimally small.  If we have only traveled for fun, we may think of language learning as a joy rather than a daunting or impossible task.  Try to imagine that you HAD to relocate, though.  As hard as it is to wrap your mind around it, imagine your country at war and your children going hungry, and having to relocate by hiding in a ship’s hold to China (or another country) where you are going to work in a factory and send money home. Good luck teaching yourself Mandarin or another new language in your spare time.

I know, you don’t believe it can happen to you, or to us.  It is hard to imagine, right?  Many refugees did not expect to be in their situations either.  Yet it happens.  We don’t like to think about it, but our house can burn down.  Our economy can tank.  Our country can be at war on home soil.  If it does happen to me, I can only hope that I will have the opportunity to learn enough of the language to converse with people.  And if I am able to struggle forward into their language, amidst all my grief and loss and worry, I hope the locals don’t tell me hateful things – like wishing me back to a war zone.  I hope at least some of the locals will take the time to get to know me, and welcome me, for as long as I have to stay.  And so I try to do the same, while I am fortunate enough to offer a safe harbor instead of having to seek one.



I cannot remember which post it was when I mentioned a clerk telling me that in each offender or suspect that she serves, she starts by silently saying to him, “I salute your light”.  Her words have stayed with me.  I try to employ them each time I find myself getting hooked into judging the person in front of me, whose full life experience I can never know.  It is a reminder to myself to stay neutral.

“I salute your light” is a silent recognition of the other person’s humanity.  A reminder to oneself that we are each more than the sum total of our mistaken actions.  We are more than our addictions.  We are more than our limitations.  We live the consequences of our mistakes, addictions and limitations – this is demonstrated on a daily basis in the criminal justice system.  But that is still not all we are.

I like the idea of a quiet and gentle court clerk, about to hand a prisoner paperwork (your bail was set at 5000, you must surrender any weapons) looking at him through the bulletproof window with a little pass-through for paperwork in it, with a wordless look of recognition emanating from her eyes.  Not to approve of his actions or be dismissive of the pain he may have caused.  But merely to say, I see you.  I recognize the fellow human in you.  I salute your light.

We do not know about other people’s futures.  We do not know how much their past will be a predictor of their future.  Life has surely surprised each and every one of us, in our own near misses, our lucky breaks and close escapes.  We have surprised ourselves after painful situations with our own resiliency and ability to learn and change.  And licked the wounds of our vanity, in those situations where were were rightfully regretful of our own behaviors.  We mustn’t forget this in our rush to judge others as wrong, so that we can continue to feel right and good and safe.

For some, their inner light may be a dim spark, or covered deep in the ashes of a decades-long trail of self-destruction.  For others, it may be the roaring blaze of a drug-induced candle that is burning at both ends and seems destined for early burnout.  Yet for a few of our prisoners, theirs may be burning into a purer flame.  They may be destined to learn from their mistakes and to become in their turn a bearer of hope to others, lighting their way out of the darkness.  We cannot know who will become a source of hope for others.  But we can surely be that source of hope where we are able.

There is a card in the the tarot deck with a wizened old person holding a lantern in the darkness.  He seems to be be saying, where you are, I once was.  Where I am, you may be some day.  It is called the hermit card.  To me, it represents the need to be introspective in our search for wisdom.  The need to search our own souls and our own dark places instead of shining the light on the mistakes of others and pointing the finger, while not seeing ourselves clearly enough to create meaningful change within.  The hermit goes off, not to judge or blame others, but to take a good look at himself.  It is in the quiet of that space, that solitude,  that wisdom is found.

If we cannot rise to the occasion of saluting the feeble light of those who seem to be in darkness, perhaps we can at least reach neutrality.  Without predicting, judging or guessing how someone will turn out, or where their life will take them after their jail time, we can at least acknowledge that we can never know everything about another person.  We can at least take one step back from judgment.

We cannot know all the factors that led a person to stand before us in prison clothes and handcuffs.  We cannot know what tools and skills they were given to deal with their lives.  We cannot know where they are going or what future good they may embrace.  So we really do not have all the information we would need in order to judge a fellow human and make a final decision on their sum total worth or value.

Instead, without a word spoken, without approving of any base or violent action, we can do what the gentlest of court clerks does, and offer an inward greeting: I salute your light.


Sometimes, I am left shaking my head at the way things are done.  A drunk driver is put on some kind of monitoring to make sure the court can easily discover if he begins drinking again.  Great idea and very useful for public safety.  It is also a great support for the individual because close monitoring is one of the best supports for establishing sobriety.  In serious cases, we  have a multi-million dollar monitoring brand that provides a couple thousand dollars worth of equipment to each individual – a complete set of everything they will need to be continuously monitored at home – except for the magnet they need to activate this equipment.  All the rest of the cords and plugs, straps and monitors are provided.  Just not the magnet.

Clients sign all kinds of paperwork swearing they will not tamper with or alter the equipment.  They watch a video on how to use it, and are personally instructed.  By definition, they have suspended licenses at this point in the process, so most of the people I work with are taking various buses to get around.  They tend to live in the suburbs because it is more affordable.  So they do not live in walking communities or have lots of stores nearby.

Did I mention they are not from around here, familiar with the area, or English-speaking?  Many of them also work very long hours at several low-paying jobs.  Fitting in treatment and court and keeping their jobs is a challenge.  A challenge they deserve, you might say, as they chose to drink and drive.  Fine.  I still argue that there are enough difficulties inherent in the system without setting them up for failure.  They will be inconvenienced and punished throughout the five years of their probation.  There is no societal benefit to creating a risk of failure based on something that is not related to drinking or driving.

Offenders are fitted with an anklet that will remotely and continuously monitor any alcohol intake through skin perspiration.  It is top of the line and highly sensitive.  They are warned not to use any bodywashes, aftershave, perfumes, or even teeth-whitening toothpastes, as these and many other products contain alcohol.   They are instructed on where to plug in the unit’s base so they can download their data via a telephone line.  And how to shower without damaging the anklet.  There is a lot of tension in the room during these sessions, because there is a lot at stake.  If they cannot figure out how to use the equipment correctly, they could go to jail.  They will certainly be called in for a hearing.  And if they miss their hearing, a bench warrant will issue.  Even if they have not been drinking.

The equipment is very high tech.  The latest and the best.  Each set of equipment costs several thousand dollars, and each offender signs an agreement to replace it if it gets damaged.  The company apparently makes their money by leasing the equipment and getting paid for the monitoring.  I do not know how much the court pays, but the individual at this time pays a startup fee and then pays 12 dollars a day in order to be monitored.   That adds up to around 360 dollars a month per offender.  I also looked up the company website, and if you click on wanting to become one of their sales people, you are asked if you have $50,000 dollars in capital to invest.  So I have a strong feeling that they are making a good profit.

Clients are sent directly from court to set up monitoring.   They meet with a monitoring representative, who carefully trains them, takes their first payment, sets them up with all their equipment, and then tells them the following.

“So you’re all set!  This is everything you need to go home and get monitored.  Except, see this magnet?  You will need to find one of these.  No, we don’t have one for you.  It is not included.  No, we cannot sell one to you.  You have to go find it on your own.  No, I don’t know where they sell them.  Maybe a drug store?  Or maybe not – no, it is not like a refrigerator magnet.  It is a special magnet.  I don’t know what it’s called.  Just try to find one that is shaped like this, a rectangle, and this size.  Maybe try a hardware store?  It has to be strong.  I don’t know how strong.  No, I don’t have a picture or it or the name of it or the size or anything.  Sorry.  But it looks like this.  You’ll have to go around and find one somehow by today because you have to get hooked up and download the readings today.  Otherwise you will be in violation and we will have to report you and you could go to jail.  Oh, you’re on the bus?  Gee, that’s too bad.  Too bad we don’t have the magnets.  But here’s all the rest of your equipment.  Good luck!”



I only saw snippets of the landmark trial of our local mass murderer who got away with years of killing young women specifically because they were underprivileged workers and runaways.  The victims were not considered high priority.  Years went by before their killer was found and convicted.  A caring detective kept on the trail, and healed many hearts in the process, although he could not, of course, bring back the dead.  Which is why forgiveness is so hard – you can never get back what you lost, so how can you forgive? And why would you even want to?

I used to wait for a bus to community college right along the strip where we later found out that this killer would pick up women.  Several men did stop at my bus stop and ask me if I wanted a ride.  Some would just stop and open the passenger door with the expectation that I would wordlessly get in their car, which perplexed me.  They looked sheepish and drove off when I just stood and stared at them in my turn.  I just didn’t realize until years later that merely being a working class girl standing alongside a highway made me look like I would be available to sexually service any man with a few bills in his wallet.  It really astounded me when I figured this out.

I avoided most of the trial and media about this killer, as it was too close to home.  He had attended our high school at the same time as my oldest sister. To my many middle class acquaintances, I try to explain some of my childhood by pointing out that this mass murderer didn’t stand out.  He was one angry, predatory male among many.  I know many boys who ended up dead, on drugs, in jail, in the military, or the few lucky ones working for the military industrial complex in a union job.  Not all the boys at my school turned out poorly, of course, yet I find that those who turned out well seem to have incredible strength of character.

What I remember most of the mass murder media coverage was when some of the family members of the dead were able to testify directly to the killer as part of his sentencing hearing.  I was interpreting at a birth and the family had this on the television, which was so bizarre to me.  But I am glad I saw it, because I remember it to this day.  One after another, they told the killer how much they hated him.  How they were so happy he was in jail where he would get his own back.  How they looked forward to his rotting in hell.  How nothing terrible that ever happened to him would be bad enough.  That they were glad in his suffering.  The cameras swung from his face to the victims’ families and back.  He did not react visibly to any of this directed hatred.  Not a tear, not a grimace, not any change of countenance.  Nothing seemed to touch him.

Near the end, a dead girl’s father stood up and said he took responsibility for not being a better father.  That he had left his young daughter to be raised in poverty by her young mother.  That he had not been there to guide and support her.  That when he had found out his daughter was getting into trouble and even running away, he didn’t act to try and help her, as a good father would have done.  He had not been there for his daughter, and now he would never have the chance.

“I cannot forgive you for what you did to her,” he said to the killer.  “Only she could do that, and she is not here.  If there was something you could do to bring my daughter back, I would ask you to, I would do anything – but I know you can’t.  Nobody can.  I only wanted to testify so I could tell you that I do forgive you for the suffering you have caused me as a father.  I don’t hate you.  I don’t wish you ill.  That is too much for me to carry.  So I forgive you.”

The killer first blinked, then tears poured down his face, then he started sobbing and choking.  Hatred, rage, anger, judgment, disdain, disparagement, revenge – none of these feelings could touch him.  He was all too familiar with them, and he had hardened his heart to all of them.  It was compassion alone that could touch him.

I have no illusions that he was crying in remorse for having killed that man’s daughter.  But the fact that he could cry at all did touch me.  And I like to think it may have added a tiny measure of comfort to those who were grieving, to see him showing some feeling.  But I don’t have the authority to speak on their behalf, and I wouldn’t presume to.  I only know it comforted me in that moment.

What about forgiveness?  I once heard an old story repeated as it surely has been in various guises.  A group of young monks who had made pledges both of silence and to never touch a woman were at the crossing of a river, where it was just deep and fast enough to make crossing on foot a danger.  But the five monks were able to hold hands and keep each other afloat.  In the middle of the river, one of the monks broke away.  The others watched in shock as he swam downriver to help a young woman carrying a baby.  He actually lifted her up into his arms with her baby and carried her the rest of the way across and then set her down on the shore.  When she thanked him, he simply nodded without speaking and moved back to his group.

The monks had to walk for several days to reach the next monastery.  During that time, they were wordlessly resentful.  The monk should not have picked up that woman!  He shouldn’t have touched her at all!  What he did went against their holy vows, and he was wrong!  Really wrong.  He considered himself holy, but he was not.   They knew each other so well that all this was communicated wordlessly.  Once they reached the next monastery, one of them felt he spoke for all when he approached the head monk and told of this incident.  A small trial was held and the accusation was made.  When asked for his defense, the offending monk made two points.  One, the woman was in distress and she and her baby could have drowned.  “Secondly, I only carried her for five minutes.  I put her down at the edge of the river four days ago.  It is the other monks, my brothers, who have been carrying her ever since.”  And so he was forgiven.

I consider forgiveness the most difficult of all the gifts we can give ourselves.  Because in forgiving it seems like we are somehow condoning bad behavior or harm.  Perpetrators and sinners do not deserve to be forgiven.  If you do something terrible you should not do it with the expectation of being forgiven.  And neither should I.   It would only raise the temptation for me to know ahead of time that I will be forgiven.  On the other hand, the victims of crimes and their loved ones do not deserve to be burdened by carrying around the hatred, the rage, and the intrusive memories of the injury done.  So what can we do?

Perhaps we can start by realizing that failing to forgive is more an injury to ourselves than to anyone else, especially someone we are not even in contact with.  Someone would have to care deeply about us indeed before our internal sufferings would cause them a moment’s remorse.  How often is that the case, especially for a crime victim?  One of the many great quotes falsely attributed to Buddha is the one about how not forgiving someone is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. This is especially true if you are not eating your meals together with the perpetrator.  Why poison ourselves?

One answer is that there is a fundamental unfairness inherent in the very concept of forgiveness.  In crimes and other transgressions, one person gets to be the perpetrator.  They choose to act, and they do something they want to do.  The other has to be the victim.  They don’t get to choose what is done to them or against them.  The action is done, and cannot be undone.   Both parties may be changed forever by this action.  And yet it is the injured party alone who has the additional task and burden of figuring out how to forgive.  Or carrying that pain and hatred around with them for the rest of their lives.  As necessary as it is, as healing as it can be, it is still a bitter cure to swallow.


In sentencing hearings, defense attorneys often speak to the judge about the circumstances of the defendant’s childhood, neighborhood, and social background, using the term “social capital” as in the defendant didn’t have much of it, so his possibilities were circumscribed.  Almost as if he were condemned by fate to end up in the criminal justice system and therefore should not be judged harshly.  I don’t like to think of our upbringing as a life sentence, but I also know that we cannot escape it entirely by pure force of will.  Moral fortitude alone is not sufficient.  It truly takes the social capital of a village to raise a child.

What is social capital?  To me, it is defined by what you have and know, and who you know.  Followed by what they have and know, and who they in turn know.  And how willing they all are to help you, in an ever-widening social circle.  If you have people in your life who know how to help you but simply refuse to, or who want to help but don’t know how, you are not going to get very far. It is like going to a dear friend for loan, when she is as broke as you are, then approaching a wealthy bank, which turns you down.  You still end up with nothing.  You need people who are able and willing to share their knowledge and resources with you.

A more thorough and elegant definition than mine was written a century ago in 1916 in an article by Hanifan: “Goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit …  and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbors.”

I like this concept that helping each other helps the whole community.  This is all cheerful great stuff, but for those who were not born into this kind of a social safety net and ladder, the required sympathy and fellowship are hard to come by. And we as a society pay the consequences, but not in equal measure.  Not by a long shot.

I remember one of our young friends expressing that he could afford to donate a substantial amount of his income because he doesn’t ever expect to be homeless or hungry.  So there was little risk and great benefit to his donating.  I shared that with one of my friends, who was silent for a moment and then asked if I felt the same.  I do.  I can think of many people who would take me in for months or even years at a time, as I would for them.  And have, on several occasions.  There are a great many beds and sofas between me and sleeping outside.  And a great many more kitchens between me and actual hunger.  The resulting feeling of security alone is one of the most priceless gifts of my social capital.

In court, I encounter many people and observe many cases where people literally have nowhere to go – no functioning friend or relative who has stable housing where they can stay.  I cannot truly imagine what that would feel like.  I cannot stretch my mind beyond sympathy for their situation, and an ongoing reminder to myself that I cannot know the sufferings of a person so differently placed.  What a wealth of friends and family I was born into.  A true blessing of fate.

Think about people we judge so harshly because they parent terribly or engage in domestic violence.  Did they have wonderful stable parents who demonstrated how to go about this mysterious business of being married and raising a family?  What kind of examples, what kind of support did they have to learn from?  Beyond emotional stability, what about the economics of a stable life?  How many kids decide to go to college and actually graduate, if they don’t have any family members or friends who are educated?  It is a leap in the dark.  How do we suppose people are to get healthy relationships and good jobs if they have never seen it done?  There is an almost infinite number of simple steps to get a good job, or to build a lasting and healthy relationship.

Someone has to guide each one of us, one way or another, through each of these steps before we can walk that path.  It takes countless mentors, supporters and teachers.  And even with all of that, we are quite capable of failing miserably at it.  It seems incredible that anyone at all is functional.  It reminds me of a lovely cartoon by the late Callahan – a huge stadium filled with banners welcoming members if I remember correctly to the “National Convention for Children of Functional Families” and there were just two or three people in the whole huge stadium.  We all of have our shortcomings, and so much of our successes come from a whole series of helping hands.  I try to keep that in mind when I find myself judging someone for falling short of my expectations.



A local judge recently considered a motion to end court ordering of a domestic violence treatment called the Duluth Model. This was based on research that it does not appear to decrease recidivism, but may actually slightly increase it. The motion was granted, ending the use of this treatment in our court. Unfortunately, the Duluth Model happens to be the only State-approved program allowed for domestic violence prevention, so the ruling leaves a dangerous gap.

For those who are unfamiliar, criminal sentences must have a legitimate purpose in order to be constitutional.  According to the well-written brief that was shared with me on this topic, there are basically two constitutionally allowed purposes.  One, to make restitution to the victim.  The other, to avoid repeat offenses, i.e. protect society from further harm.  The sentence must also be reasonable, and not needlessly harsh.  Punishment per se, in the biblical sense, an eye for an eye type of thing, is not on the menu for the criminal justice system under the US constitution.  Sorry, folks.

Under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, conditions of sentencing must be reasonably related to the defendant’s duty to make reparations, or prevent future criminal behavior.  The purpose of this is to promote respect for the law by imposing punishment that is just.  It also should allow the offender a chance to improve himself.  It would reduce the risk of re-offending while making frugal use of public resources.  This is likely why so many of the programs are now set up for the offenders to pay for their own rehabilitation.

The favored model for domestic violence treatment has been a program called the Duluth Model, which was founded in that city and expanded across the country.  At its core, it comes from a feminist perspective and is based on the theory that (mostly) men beat (mostly) women because these men have been socialized to believe they deserve to have power and control over women.  The Duluth publications do not use gender-neutral words as they want to be clear that men trying to control women is the fundamental cause of most domestic violence.  They consider domestic violence to be a symptom of patriarchal ideology.

To quote their website,  the Duluth Model “believes that battering is a pattern of actions used to intentionally control or dominate an intimate partner, and actively works to change societal conditions that support men’s use of tactics of power and control over women”.  Their idea is to promote an egalitarian relationship between the genders.  They seek to hold participants accountable for changing their own patterns of thinking and beliefs, leading to new and healthier patterns of behavior.  They also strive to end victim blaming.

The Duluth Model includes the use of a “Power and Control Wheel” and an “Equality Wheel” that helps abusers recognize both the behavior patterns they seek to end and the patterns they are being trained to embrace. They have regular homework assignments calling for self-reflection and the taking of responsibility, in which they reflect on past behaviors and envision alternate ways to have acted under similar circumstances.  Like sexual abusers, they are tasked with writing letters of empathy and responsibility, in which they begin to perceive and acknowledge how it must have felt to be abused, and their own role in the abuse.  They even keep a log of their ongoing controlling behaviors, as a way to monitor themselves.

It appears to me that the studies indiscriminately include anyone anywhere who uses the word Duluth.  These random programs tend not to have the community component and are given in isolation. They also do not have the coordinated follow-up and immediate consequences of the true Duluth Model.  The results of these wannabe programs are not good. One study claimed that longer treatment seemed to “cause” a slightly higher incidence of repeat offenses.  The conclusion drawn is that the treatment itself must be counterproductive.

I am not convinced that any of the studies presented are statistically valid, or that the programs being studied as if they were one are even similar to each other.  The studies also don’t deal with who gets sent to the longer program.  It seems logical that the worst offenders go to the lengthier treatment, so the fact that they reoffend more than a group getting less treatment is not in itself a convincing argument against treatment.  But the studies have been well-received enough to have many courts stop ordering domestic violence treatment.  Now my local court is one of them.

I understand the aspect of justice not being served by having forced expensive treatments that are not effective.  That does smack of unconstitutional punishment.  I just hope that the courts will find a way to develop and order appropriate services so we can have a better chance of reducing recidivism.  Because if we lose the educational component, the prevention programs, the outreach and support, we are left only with the punishment, and more re-offending.

I was talking with a defense attorney about domestic violence, and she told me that she personally is glad that the Duluth Model is not going to be ordered.  She does not buy into the idea that domestic violence is about “power and control” but claims it is simply the effect of two people living in a toxic relationship. That made me wonder about the actual numbers – I had always understood that many more women are seriously assaulted and killed at home than men.  Has it changed to 50/50 in our modern world?  So I did a bit of research on US statistics.

It appears that for murdered adults, around a third of women are murdered by their male “loved one” while under 3% of murdered men are killed by a female intimate partner.  If these relationships are not about power and control, and have nothing to due with traditional men wanting to get women to submit, it must be a statistical anomaly that makes these mutually toxic relationships ten times more fatal to women than men.  And these statistics, to me, speak a lot louder than the critiques of the Duluth Model.

Call it whatever you want, but let us please get some kind of treatment plan in place to protect the one third of women and 3% of men who are murdered by the person who swore to love them.  We have the resources and the knowledge to make this happen.  And to quote a very old saying, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  I think we all agree that jailing perpetrators after the fact is not nearly as handy as preventing crime in the first place.



We read in the press about numerous human rights violations around the world. The term has become so common that it is hard to see the faces behind the numbers. A few days ago, I observed a portion of a hearing related to one of Colombia’s war crimes trials. I was listening mainly for the legal argument, and to hear the judge’s reasoning. Then a member of the press approached me, and asked me if I was one of the victims of Colonel Avila and his Death Squad Battalion. At that point, I looked around the courtroom and it struck me that in addition to the press, the room was filled with people whose lives had been permanently altered by the actions of Colonel Avila and his soldiers. Some were crying. Some were talking quietly with one another. A few were shaking their heads in disbelief.

The judge was tasked with deciding whether this already jailed Colonel should be further charged with seventeen more crimes, including murders, and if so, whether he should be ordered held on these additional cases. His reasoning followed the law, but when stated aloud, it also seemed crazy-making, because war is crazy. From what I was able to observe, the argument went along these lines:

Armed conflict is legal. Killing people during armed conflict is legal. So when a soldier kills someone during armed conflict, it is not murder. It is legal killing. When we hire and train soldiers, we expect them and even order them to kill people. The soldiers are just doing their job. And this is all within the law. This is not a crime. It is a legitimate, legal function of government – to kill people. The government has a legitimate interest – in killing people for political purposes.

In the specific cases at hand, there is no dispute over whether the victims were killed. There is no question that they were killed by soldiers. The first question is whether they were killed in battle, or just murdered. If they were killed in battle, it is NOT murder. If they were set up to be killed, but not really killed in battle, then it IS murder. In these cases, it does appear that these individuals were set up to be killed, and not actually killed in battle. This fact is no longer in dispute. So it IS murder.

However, the judge went on, the prosecution did not make the necessary connection in each of these cases between what happened (civilian non-combatants being set up and killed by soldiers) and their superior officer Colonel Avila having knowledge of it. Some of his soldiers are in jail and some of them have even confessed to setting up civilians to get killed, but that doesn’t mean that Colonel Avila knew what the soldiers under his command were doing. Maybe he was careless, the judge mused, and should have known, but there does not appear to be proof positive that he KNEW what his soldiers were doing.

It was at this point that several family members of the dead got up and walked out. For them, it was clear that Colonel Avila not only knew, but had directly ordered his men to do exactly what they did. Who would have dared to come up with such a plot and carry it out without the permission of his superior officers? But what exactly did these soldiers do?

Imagine that you are in a civil war fighting communists and drug gangs. Some people I talked with claim that the two groups became one group over time. As the government, getting money to fight crime, you need to show that you are winning in order to keep getting your funding. There is incredible pressure on you to show that the government is stable and in control. As soldiers, if you show that you are winning battles, you also have the chance to get promotions and move up in the military. So you fight hard and win battles, and save the country from destruction, and become a friend of the poor, who come to trust you, and you get richly rewarded, right? That is what the press indicates – I invite you to look it up on line. There is an uplifting article from 2011 showing Avila playing with poor children, “winning the hearts of the poor,” and it mentions that he has received 32 awards from all over the world for his amazing work in saving Colombia. A true humanitarian.

Sounds wonderful to have this sweet and charismatic man, a soldier trained in the United States, working at great personal risk to keep his country safe from commies and druglords. What a brave man! Winning the hearts and souls of the poor kids in the ghettos. The poorest of the poor. The people whom politicians love to talk about helping when they run for office. You can see Avila in the press photographs, smiling and surrounded by poor children of all ages. He is a real hero! Thank God Colombia has people like him to clean up the country and make things right. Only one problem. It didn’t happen that way.

For years, soldiers in Avila’s battalion got money from a special fund to pay informants about the movement of the enemy combatants. They were then supposed to find those combatants, and engage them in battle, hopefully killing them in the way the judge described as legitimate kills. Instead, the soldiers used the money to recruit poor kids from the poorest areas. They told these kids they were going to get work with the military. They were going to be soldiers, or work in other capacities for the military, and get good pay, uniforms, three meals a day, and money for their families. In one place, they got 30 young men, almost everybody in that neighborhood. What a great deal for these families! Their sons taken care of, and help for their community. God has smiled on them.

These young men were taken to remote areas of “armed conflict”. They were put into the uniforms of the guerrilla. They were summarily killed and positioned to look like they had been fighting. Not necessarily in that order. Sometimes they were dressed as guerrillas after they were murdered. The “combat” scenes were photographed and documented. Their bodies were turned in as if they had been “casualties” from the enemy lines. This particular battalion, under Avila’s command, won all kinds of awards. They were doing an amazing job of finding guerrillas and killing them. They must have won most of their battles with close to zero casualties. Avila must be a genius. A military brainiac. Give the man an award, promote his brave soldiers, and the government did.

The families of the dead complained for years unheard. How could they recruit my son with Down’s Syndrome? Why did no one ask parental permission for our under-age sons? Why was my left-handed son found with a gun in his right hand? My son’s body was returned to me as he was found, with cleanly ironed pants on, after supposedly fighting in the jungle for months. Where would he have gotten an iron? And there was not a speck of mud or dirt on the bottom of the boots. My son was found with size 12 combat boots on, and he wears shoe size 8. My son was found with his combat boots on the wrong feet. Our sons, several dozen of them, were recruited from our village last week for the Colombian military. How could they all have become enemies of the state, switched sides, and been killed, within a week? How come if they all died in battle, they were each shot in the back of the head once? This doesn’t make any sense.

I don’t know how these cases first came to light and became common knowledge. When I asked Colombians about it, they said, oh yes, the False Positives. These murders have been nicknamed with a benign term that sounds more like a bad pregnancy test than a particularly cruel government sponsored plan to “cleanse” neighborhoods and kill a generation of young men while meeting their quotas for war casualties. Meanwhile, governments around the world, even as your eyes absorb these words, get funding from their own taxpayers, or from outside governments, and have to show that they too are fighting and winning. The pressure is on, and it is relentless. The costs of war go far beyond what we who are not in power can ever know.
How many poor young men were led to their slaughter as part of this charade so Colombia could appear to be winning the war? We will never know. But the current count of documented and confirmed cases of young people killed in this way, as of last year, is between three and four thousand. The mind absolutely reels as it tries to begin to imagine how much of this kind of thing is going on around the world. The numbers become too high to keep in mind each face, each slender young corpse, of the victims. Every life has a story. And this particular crime is just a drop in the bucket of the overall cost of war to soldiers and civilians and societies. Human rights violations, especially war crimes, encompass so much more suffering than this one wave of killings, as overwhelming as it is.

But coming back simply to this one set of killings in which I observed the judge arguing his government-sponsored philosophy which is shared by so many, I cannot help but ponder this. Poor kids were recruited by one side. They were put into uniforms of the opposing side, and murdered in cold blood. If they had, in fact, been recruited by the other side, and put into those same uniforms, and gone into combat with little or no training, bad weapons, boots that didn’t fit, and about the same chances for survival, they then could have been killed in cold blood, and that would have been legal and perfectly legitimate. So we don’t really have an issue with our kids getting put into uniforms and then getting killed. We just don’t want it to happen outside the rules of how we think it is legitimate to kill people. Perhaps instead of trying to find cleaner ways to kill each other, we can begin to figure out how we can stop killing each other?


There is a fundamental tenet of US law that is summed up in the phrase “your rights end where mine begin”.  Of course it is simplistic, but that old phrase comes to mind when considering how to protect society from personal violence while not condemning people who have already been punished by their own childhoods and are now broken beyond repair.  I have more questions than answers, but I consider the questions important enough to ask.

Allow me to introduce you to a defendant from the perspective of his criminal history.  This is not a nice person.  He has multiple crimes mostly against women spanning over the whole course of his adult life.  He continues to offend and re-offend and the cases just pile up.  He has felony convictions and is monitored as a sex offender.  He also has multiple misdemeanor cases in various jurisdictions, because he has a habit of meeting, scaring, threatening, and hurting women.  This is his ongoing pattern.

Easy to hate him.  Easy to condemn him.  Lock him up and throw away the key, some would say.  Take him out and shoot him, say others.  Isn’t there a “three times you’re out” law that can take care of him? Just get rid of him!  He is scum.  He is a horrible, scary, man who has hurt many and will hurt many more if we don’t just – do something.

Speaking NOT as an interpreter, but as a woman, I am personally sick and tired of men who hurt women.  I am tired of all their pathetic excuses.  I don’t give a damn if they were not breastfed long enough, or if their first girlfriend broke their heart, or if they were raised without a healthy father figure.  I am sick and tired of women having to pay for that over and over again.  Women who never harmed the men who turn to violence.  Women who also grew up with violence, but who instead of becoming perpetrators, end up with unhealthy, unsafe boundaries and rather than hurting others are left unable to protect themselves, and remain the victims.  It is a sickening cycle from every angle.

At the same time, these defendants are still human beings, with painful histories leading them relentlessly to their present situation. I invite you to meet the defendant as a child who as of yet has done no wrong and is not responsible for anything.  The attorney accessed his childhood records as part of sentencing.  He was born to a drug-addicted mother.  She was not able to take care of him, but social services did not notice this in any effective way.  He was neglected.   He didn’t have regular meals, decent clothes to wear to school, or anything like normalcy.  He was beaten by one of mommy’s boyfriends to the point of brain injury.  One result is that he has zero impulse control.  Even during this court process, he has yelled at everyone and threatened everyone, including his lawyer.  He is an angry, confused, broken human being.  He never had a chance to develop in any meaningful way.  No one came anywhere near to meeting his most basic human needs.  And now most people just wish he was dead.

Everybody hates him.  Even his long-term partner, the mother of his children, his off-and-on girlfriend, hates him and is scared of him.  He has tried to kill her.  Who could love him?  His mother never did.  His father didn’t care if he lived or died.  His extended family was just part of the problem.  No one at school liked him.  No teacher ever took him under her wing.  This is not a feel-good movie plot with a happy ending.  No one saved him.  Instead, everyone found him highly unpleasant and unlovable, even as a child.  He had nowhere to go for help, and no one had pity on him.  Now he has pity on no one.  Not even on his own offspring.  Why should he?  Where would he have learned compassion?  Who ever cared for him?  He wants things to go his way and he is really pissed off, because they never will.

He cannot make sense of his life history, not only because it doesn’t make any sense, but also because his childhood has left him borderline “retarded” – a misnomer that makes it seem like if we give him enough time he will somehow catch up and become a healthy, functioning person in society.  He has a problem that time will not cure, and there are legions like him across the world, recreating their own personal hell by abusing one person after another.

How much can society expect of him and others like him?  Not much. He and all the others who were not protected, nurtured, loved and raised to be decent adults don’t have a lot to offer. They are living in the only way they know how.   Society turned its back on them over and over.  Now they are acting out in ways that hurt others.  And the cycle continues.

Nothing that happened to this or any defendant gives them the right to abuse someone else.  It helps us understand how it came about. That is all.

So the questions remains.  How are we to protect society from the people that society didn’t protect?

Punishment does not prevent crime.  We need some plan for prevention.  But what?  What kind of transformation would our society need, before his kind of childhood would not happen?  Where children, all of whom are born with an open, innocent heart, could keep the full range of what nature endowed them, and bloom into healthy, functioning adults.  People we would easily be able to love, just as we love babies.

It is too late for him.  He will not be made whole.  And each of his victims has also received a wound, has lost a part of herself, through his crimes.

I don’t have a clear answer, and if I did, I could not implement it.  But we each have to take some steps in the direction of healing, and creating a society where children can remain as pure and complete as they are born to be.  Because an injury to one is an injury to all, and childhoods like his just perpetuate themselves.



Were you ever cold enough to be tempted to steal a pair of socks?  I met someone who was, and many others in similar situations.  The way different stores deal with shoplifters varies wildly.  At my local grocery store, the manager simply has the person return the item and warns them that they are not allowed back into the store.  Only if they are caught again does he inform the police.  I was told he has very few repeat offenders, usually the chronically needy or people with mental health issues.

For some misdemeanor offenses such as property damage, shoplifting and even some car accidents, the criminal charge may be dropped through an alternative called a compromise of misdemeanor.  In effect, the person who causes the damage pays for it with money to the victim of the crime (the store, property owner or car owner).  The idea is that the victim has received satisfaction, so there is no societal need for further punishment.  The prosecutor monitors these cases and once all the money is paid, the charges are usually reduced to something minor, or even dropped.

This kind of idea is not unique to the United States.  In several countries a person accused of a crime can pay money instead of going to jail.  It may be a formal procedure.  You might be sentenced to  thirty days OR a thousand dollars, for example.  In other areas, the payment may be informal.  You pay someone off or make a donation to a fund and let’s forget this ever happened.  In any case, I have interpreted for many defendants who ask if they can “just pay” instead of being prosecuted.

This adds to the confusion when shoplifters of very low-cost items are told by the store guard that they can pay to be let off.  One of the major so-called charities in our area is well known in the court system for having a large private security force policing their stores of donated items.  They then catch shoplifters and have them sign a “civil agreement” to pay usually a few hundred dollars in “damages” to the store – while giving back the items they may have stolen, which are usually worth a couple dollars.

In the cases where I have interpreted, there is a very consistent story.  A poor person tries to shoplift an item.  The store security catches them and takes them to an office.  They have to give back the item.  They are photographed.  They have to show their identification.  They are told they cannot leave.  Then they are offered what sounds like a compromise of misdemeanor.

The guard explains to the shoplifter that if she agrees to pay a special fee to the store of several hundred dollars, the shoplifter and the store can sign an agreement, and that will “settle the case”.  The shoplifter will then call around to friends and family, desperate to stay out of jail and avoid possible deportation for having tried to steal a donated item worth a couple dollars.  Their loved ones show up over the next few hours and hand over cash.  End of story, and lesson learned?  Well, no.  Because in this particular charity, the security guard (or loss prevention officer) then calls the police and has the shoplifter arrested anyway.

No, I am not a fan of the Five Finger Discount and I don’t think that what’s mine is mine and what’s yours in mine.  But I do think the punishment should be more commensurate with the crime.  I don’t know why this huge charity store chooses to deal with shoplifting by pressing the person to pay hundreds of dollars, photographing them, taking the items back, trespassing them (with a trespass order) having them cough up what for them and their loved ones is a small fortune, then calling the police on them after all.  In addition to all that, shoplifters are now ordered to go to a class that is intended to teach them about the impact of shoplifting on “our” community.

I was so surprised the first time I heard the story along the above lines.  I thought it was an anomaly until I had heard it a few dozen times.  Some days I would hear five or six stories about this same situation playing out in the same store on the calendar where I interpret for shoplifting.  It has been a while so I don’t know if the policy has changed.  I hope so.

One attorney was asking the client in the jail holding area why he had stolen the particular item that led to his arrest.  It was documented in the case file as a pair of wool socks for 99 cents.  There was a photo attached – a used pair of wool socks.

“So why did you steal them?” the attorney questioned.

“Well you see I am homeless – I sleep in the streets.  And my feet get wet and then I am so cold. I even got bronchitis.  The clinic doctor told me I need to stay warm or I will get pneumonia.  And I have to be able to work.  That’s why I’m here.  I can’t afford to be sick.  Then one of my buddies told me that wool socks, socks made of wool from sheep, stay warm even when they are wet.  That’s why I was hoping to get a pair of wool socks.  But I only had the dollar and it wasn’t enough for the tax and I guess I was tempted so I just put them in my backpack and then I got arrested and they took the socks back. ”

This particular young man was sometimes in a shelter and sometimes on the street. He had no family in the area and had illusions about how easy it would be to get work in this area without papers or language skills.  He described himself as a hard worker.  His friends had put together the 250 dollars that the charity demanded for what he thought was his release.  He was feeling bad that his friends would now have less money to send to their families – especially since it didn’t really help him.

The sock stealing worker kept saying he knew he had done wrong, and he wanted to tell the judge so.  And then explain about his wet feet, and the temptation, and that he knew he shouldn’t have done it, but he was still hoping for mercy.  He was hoping so much that the ultimate punishment for trying to get a pair of wool socks would not end up being jail and then deportation.  He still owed the coyote several thousand dollars for helping his cross the border, and he wasn’t sure what might happen if he got deported and couldn’t pay.  He seemed more bewildered than anything else.  He was trying to make sense of something that makes so very little sense to me.

I am not an economist and I do not claim that I can place a monetary value on everything that happens around me.  But as a human being, I just wonder how useful it is to arrest poor people for trying to get things like a donated pair of used socks and then hold up their friends and family for a couple hundred dollars.  Follow that by having the taxpayers pay a several thousands dollars in court costs on each case by the time you add up the cost of lawyers, judges, probation and the rest.

I doubt many of us donate our clothing expecting it to be used as a lure to extort money from the poor.  Could we possibly have more clothing banks where  folks with good clothes could donate more directly in service of the poor?  This may be possible through our food banks.  I plan to be more thoughtful about where I donate in future.

Some cases stay with you.  I never put on a pair of wool socks without thinking of that young, hopeful, bewildered man.  And the millions of others who are in similar circumstances.  I hope  for the sake of all of us, that we can reach a less brutalizing global economy within our lifetime.

PS: Quite a few readers contacted me to ask if the store chain in question is a for-profit.  No.  It is a charity.  Do your research.


“We are NOT against sex!  We ARE against abuse.  And abusing sex workers has got to stop.  That is why we give these classes, so you can really try to wrap your head around what you are participating in – a cycle of abuse.  Please listen.  We know what we’re talking about.  We are sex workers.”  A few members of the audience sit up in surprise and start to really look at the speaker.

One of my favorite yet painful things to interpret has been a John’s class.  It is an amazing educational program that came out of a sexworker union in California a few decades back and is now used as a model around the country.  It is unique in that it is taught by  current and former sex workers, so they obviously have some standing to tell the johns some home truths regarding sex for money, and break through some of the Hollywood myths.  When people outside the field try to bring up abusive sex practices, they are  dismissed as prudes who are not sex positive, but when the sex workers are talking, we as a society have to listen.  They know what their work is like.  And they deserve to be heard.

The class has some portions trying to raise self-awareness in the johns.  What makes you think you should have sexual access to these young women and men?  Do you realize it can be considered a form of economic rape?  Instead of a gun you hold needed money, and without that, you are not having sex.  If you claim it is a job, do you care about the working conditions at all?  What makes you feel like it is okay to hop atop someone without even giving the least little bit of a shit about how that person lives or what their life is like?  Even leaving aside the fact that you are married or have kids the age of the kids you pay for sex, and other attendant ethical issues.  What is wrong with you, what is the hole in your heart, the gap in your psyche that allows you to feel nothing  in the face of another person’s suffering? And to actually participate in their suffering with no feeling but a sense of excitement.  Seriously.  Take a look at that.  For your own good.

According the the police officer that presented at the last class I attended, 85% of local prostitutes are under 18 and almost 100% of teens have pimps.  Every class, men claim not to know that the person they have sex with is probably underage, and does not actually keep the money.  They claim they don’t know that young people are forced, coerced, bullied and threatened into the trade.  They have a discussion about it in small groups and once they loosen up, they tend to joke about how it would be great to just get paid to have sex.  That would be a dream job.  They have seen all the media portrayals and it looks like fun.  Easy money.

Then the police officer tells them some incidents from his personal experience investigating sex trafficking and pimping.  He talks about how little money the worker gets to keep for her own use, if any.  How many are raped repeatedly and forced to take drugs, locked up for weeks and have their families threatened, as inducements to agree to work.  Some are found and rescued and then there are the unknown who are never found.  He uses actual names and cases in the news.  He shows a series of photos of sex workers with scars, burn marks, tattoos, knife cuts and stitches, and other permanent marks courtesy of the pimps, either during working years or when the worker tried to escape.  He shows photos from a murder scene.

As he goes through the slides, the police asks the audience,  “imagine if this were your sister, your mother, your daughter, your wife, with her face cut up like that, with those burn marks,” and each time the men I interpret for shudder.  Not for the victims, but because they don’t like their families mentioned. It is such a common fighting word insult to say for example “your mother is a whore”  that it really hits them hard to hear.  They don’t want their womenfolk mentioned. The police officer points out that he wants the men to realize that these workers also have siblings and parents who love them, and often children they support. They are real people with real families.

The local public health department also comes in with photos of genitalia with various sexually transmitted diseases, and gives a quiz on who they think has what, which everyone routinely fails, as many diseases are not visible on women, nor on men in early stages.  Part of the plea bargain includes getting sexually transmitted disease testing, including HIV.  There is information about general sexual hygiene.  One doctor actually joked during his safe sex talk that “god gave you two hands,” as a reminder that the only way to absolutely avoid sexually transmitted diseases is to not have sexual contact with another person, especially someone who by trade is in contact with so many others.  And he of course reminded them that many wives and pregnant women become HIV-positive through their husband’s unsafe practices, so they need to stop thinking of this practice as something they can sneak off and do with no consequences.

A psychologist who works with sex addicts gives information about the psychology of addiction, and how the compulsive behaviors that we routinely use to harm ourselves and others are all addictions.  It could be drugs, or gambling, or pornography, or anything else.  They are things we come back to again and again in order to mask our pain, our loneliness, our isolation, our fear, our impotence.  But none of the addictions will make those feelings go away, so we have to keep going back to the addiction to escape our feelings, to dissociate from ourselves, until we finally get brave enough to seek help and look at our underlying problems.  And only then do we have a chance to become whole.  “Even if nobody ever finds out what you are up to, bottom line, you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror.”

The facilitator comes forward between each presentation and tries to engage the johns in thoughtful discussion.  She also shows a film where different workers talk about their struggles to get out of the trade.  Some of them disparage the men they have serviced, and laugh about what losers they consider these needy, greedy, socially isolated men.  One says she has daydreamed at work about stabbing the john in the gut and just watching his intestines pour out of him.   One talks about wondering now that she is sober and off the streets what kind of a person would actually wake up a drugged out unkempt woman sleeping under cardboard and tell her he wants sex.  She showed the alley where she used to sleep and just shook her head.  The film tries to show a human face to their suffering.  I wonder how many of the johns can see it.

The retired sex worker who is running one of the classes talks a lot about the dangers to the johns in the hopes that if nothing else their own narcissism might induce them to care a little .  She told them she herself always carried a knife after the first time she got beat up and that most workers have signals for the pimp to come in and how sometimes the john will get beat up or robbed.  Nowadays they can also get filmed or recorded, or followed home.  This is not the fun stuff we see in the movies, she tells them.  Believe me, I have been there.  Please believe me.  I am not the only one at risk out there.

One sex worker told that she keeps her undies bundled up in her hand in a little ball, so that as frequently happens when the john finishes and suddenly pushes her out of the car and slams the door, she won’t lose so many pairs of underwear.  This is not the movies.

Some of the statistics shared by the human trafficking expert still haunt me .  It is hard to fathom the terror and isolation of young people transported across state lines, let alone the globe, and forced into sex work.  And then there are all the local kids who are somehow vulnerable to it.  Lots start out just as runaways and end up never being able to get home.  Some have no homes to go to.  They fall prey to the larger concerns where millions are made off the backs of the youth.  Kids as young as 12 and 13 are given fake ID and transported across state lines to work in Vegas or other areas.  It stops most of them from getting home and keeps them in the business as they also get into drugs and get caught in the life.  But the number that hit me the hardest was the average number of tricks a typical  pimped out sex worker is supposed to come up to in a day.  Most men guess around 3 or 4.  The actual average was 22 to 25 a day.

Defense attorneys routinely tell me that these stats cannot be true – the police just want to “cast everyone as a victim”.  All I can say is that would be wonderful if it were true.  I would love it if the photos I saw were not real.  I wish all the stories I hear of abuse could be made up, and all human trafficking were just people coming willingly for good safe jobs.  I would love it if the sex worker who was stabbed to death in my town last week by a man who claimed to love her had not suffered such a very common fate, since for sex workers the top three causes of death are murder, overdose, and suicide.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the gamut of sex work from pornography to strip clubs to sex on the street were really just fun and carefree, victimless crimes, like certain people want us to believe?  God, I would love for that to be true. That would make me much happier than the unanswerable questions that weigh like a stone upon my heart.