Beyond crime and punishment: A movement to stop Florida’s endless prison cycle and heal communities

Conor McBride
Conor McBride is halfway through serving a 20-year prison sentence at Wakulla County Correctional Institution with 10 years probation. Restorative justice advocates continue to refer to his case when talking about how Florida could try to reform its criminal justice system. CD Davidson-Hiers/Florida Phoenix

Florida has an incarceration problem that is unsustainable, according to criminal justice reform advocates. The Sunshine State locks up people who commit a crime at a rate above the national average, and Florida is one of the top seven states that together hold nearly half of the nation’s entire incarcerated population, according to the research nonprofit Florida Policy Institute and 2014 data gathered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Ending the spiraling cycle of crime and incarceration is a key goal for criminal justice reformers. Enter restorative justice, a growing movement that brings communities together after a crime has been committed with the goals of addressing the root issues that led to the crime and figuring out how to resolve them.

Advocates like Dan Kahn, who is Executive Director of the Florida Restorative Justice Association, believe a statewide move towards more restorative justice could revolutionize the state’s criminal justice system by getting at the source of community problems and working to heal – and not just punish – people who commit crimes.

Here’s how it works: If everyone agrees to be part of the process, trained facilitators bring together the person who committed the crime with the victim. Sometimes community members who were affected are present, as well as families of both the victim and the perpetrator. Everyone is given the opportunity to speak frankly about how the crime impacted them and what can be done to avoid it happening again.

Why would someone who committed a crime agree to be part of a restorative justice circle? Why would the people affected by the crime agree? Sometimes guilt is a motivator and the wish for forgiveness and closure for an event that’s changed lives.

But, to be clear: Forgiveness is not required in a restorative justice practice. It’s not even a direct goal.

Conor McBride

On a March afternoon in 2010, 19-year-old Tallahassee native Conor McBride walked into the Tallahassee Police Department to turn himself in for murder.

McBride had shot his fiancée Ann Grosmaire, 19, in the head during an argument. McBride was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. He faced life in prison.

Today, McBride is now halfway through serving a 20-year sentence at Wakulla Correctional Institution with an additional 10 years of probation. His case is significant because of the way it brought all the parties together after their normal lives were shattered.

It wasn’t easy to accomplish logistically, but the Grosmaires and McBrides would eventually come together in a restorative justice circle in a small room in the Leon County Jail nearly 10 years ago.

Ann’s parents, Andy and Kate Grosmaire, needed McBride to explain to them what happened that day he killed their daughter.

Last summer, in an interview with the Florida Phoenix, McBride wore a faded blue prison uniform and sat in a cafeteria in Wakulla Correctional Institution. He described his memory of the restorative justice circle – his mom, his dad, his lawyer, then-Leon County assistant state attorney Jack Campbell, a victim’s advocate, a local parish priest, Kate and Andy Grosmaire, and California-based restorative justice facilitator Sujatha Baliga. The Grosmaires had contacted Baliga to help with the circle.

McBride says he didn’t know what to do when confronted with so many people. It was Baliga who told him to go hug his mom.

State Attorney Campbell began the process by reading McBride’s charges.

“If you’ve ever read charging information, it’s really stark and bleak and kind of legalese,” McBride says. “It doesn’t really pull any punches.”

McBride says he felt the charging information could have set the tone for what might have become “two parties kind of set against each other, even though the Grosmaires had been visiting me in jail and there was that relationship there that normally wouldn’t be.”

But then the Grosmaires began to speak.

“They explained losing their daughter. They talked about how it was a waste to them. They’d spent 19 years raising their daughter and now she’s gone,” McBride says.

Andy Grosmaire needed to know the sequence of events that led to his daughter’s death. At first, McBride wasn’t able to recall exactly what happened. He knew he’d killed Ann, but it took prompting and time for his memory to piece together every moment that led to his actions.

McBride speaks like someone who’s revisited the moment over and over, and he’s no stranger to the media asking about the case. In 2013, the New York Times Magazine published a story, “Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?” Since then, he’s also been featured in documentaries about restorative justice, and McBride says he tries to help coach other inmates in Wakulla through the issues they’re facing.

In the circle, “(the Grosmaires) talked about meals made, changing diapers, sleepless nights with a newborn, sleepless nights with a teenager,” McBride says. “It was such a waste for them because Ann was just about to go off to college, just about to go out into the world. And she had all this potential, and I ruined that … The grief and the heartache they were going through was there. It was present in the small room.”

Sujatha Baliga, the facilitator who came to Florida for the case, is a large figure in the world of restorative justice. Baliga is a former public defender and is now the director of the Restorative Justice Project at the justice reform organization Impact Justice.

When she was first contacted about McBride’s case, Baliga says she was skeptical. Her experience with restorative justice revolved around theft and other smaller crimes – never homicide.

But when she heard that the Grosmaires and McBrides were talking to each other and that Kate Grosmaire was already visiting Conor McBride in jail, she says she knew something would be different about the case.

During the circle, Baliga guided the conversations by asking open-ended questions, and she worked a little in advance with everyone involved to prepare them for what the circle would entail.

“The No. 1 thing I wanted was for people to walk into that circle with clarity about their expectations and a way to take care of themselves if those expectations didn’t get met,” Baliga says. “I can’t guarantee what any outcomes are going to be, but what I can do is help folks think through: Why are we doing this; and what do you need to get out of it; and what do you want to offer to it; and what are your hopes for what’s going to happen; and what happens if that doesn’t happen?”

“You create the container for other people to work out their own stuff,” she says. “I believe that families and communities have everything they need in order to heal their own harm if we had safe containers within which they could do that.”

Florida law has a provision that gives local state attorneys the option of setting up official neighborhood restorative justice centers to provide services for first-time juvenile offenders whose crimes aren’t violent. Working with young people – and offering more than just punishment – is especially critical to try to stop repeat offenses and the cycle of violence.

A testament to the movement’s growing power in communities around the state, the Florida Restorative Justice Association hosted its first-ever conference this fall in Sarasota. More than 100 people attended from around the state. They plan to hold another.

“We know there are challenges and challenging conversations ahead – we’re not all in social harmony – but I think in that moment (at the conference) we had a real sense of creating something that had some beauty and bonding and real hope attached to it,” Kahn says.

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