Javier Stuaring organizes healing dialogues between families of people who have a loved one murdered with families of loved ones serving life sentences for murder. He wants to see the criminal justice system changed to incorporate the healing needs of both families.
“Our current system over-relies on punishment,” said Stuaring, the executive director of Healing Dialogue and Action. “We have a justice system where a crime occurs, we punish them and that’s it. That really just continues the cycle of hurt and pain.”
He told a story about a mother whose son was killed.
“My son was murdered 17 years ago, and nothing has helped me more than sitting with the mom of the son who committed the murder; nothing has healed me more,” the mother told him.
Stuaring said, “I’ve always thought of the work I do in spiritual terms — horrible things happen in the world because people have free will, but the true divine moments happen with how folks respond after a tragedy happens. Those are God’s moments— when you see humanity at its best.”
He has seen many of those kinds of interactions. The organization’s team holds full-day retreats where they break into small groups with moms of a murdered child and moms of a child serving life for murder.
The team includes Stuaring, Brenda Ramirez, Sara Kruzan and Rebecca Weiker.
“What happens is they find a piece they identify with in each other,” Stuaring said. “The mom with a child sentenced to life talking about her struggle, and the mom with a murdered child see the similarities. That kind of human interaction has the power to be transformative.”
The Healing Dialogue and Action team has suffered firsthand experiences like the ones they help people heal from. Weiker’s sister was murdered. Ramirez had a 16-year-old brother sentenced to life without possibility of parole (LWOP). Kruzan herself was sentenced to LWOP at 16. She served 20 years before making it home.
“These are folks that have experienced horrible situations and gone through the processes of reflection,” Stuaring said. “They have made a commitment to turn that pain into a light that they can share with others.”
“Some 70 million Americans have a criminal record – a number equal to Americans with a college degree,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice. NEW YORK TIMES July 27, 2018 “Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance”
Stuaring believes the justice system continues the cycle of pain by failing to address the needs of crime survivors.
“I’ve met families who the murder happened 20 years ago, but the pain is still present and so raw. We don’t do enough to offer support to survivors. What’s worse is that the system contributes toward that anger.
“The system many times encourages people to stay in that angry place. There are too many times DAs call and say, ‘This person is up for parole. You need to testify, and you need to be there or this person is gonna get out.’”
Stuaring feels the system keeps the idea going that the person who committed the offense is the same old evil person and that this burdens survivors with having to speak out against parole grants instead of creating ways for survivors to find out how the person who committed the offense used their time, whether they felt remorse and whether they have changed their lives.
Seeking to improve the system, he sat in a circle with survivors of crime; offenders; prosecutors; Executive Officer Jennifer Shaffer of the Board of Parole Hearings; and Nolice Edwards, chief, Office of Victim and Survivor Rights and Services. They brainstormed ways to improve the system for survivors.
He wants to see more opportunities for victims and offenders to come together for healing dialogues and create a letter bank system where people inside can write letters of apology and, if the person offended wants to, they can receive the epistles expressing remorse.
In the past, Stuaring has won awards for successfully advocating changes in treatment of juveniles. He received the 2004 Human Rights Watch Award and The Children’s Nobel Peace Prize from Sweden.
The awards stem from speaking out to stop detention facilities from housing children 17 and under in what he calls, “the worst place I’ve ever been too — 23-hour lockup in tiny cells.”
At the time, Stuaring was doing a detention ministry for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The Catholic lay chaplain held that job for 27 years.
He took action after seeing what he deemed the mistreatment of juveniles in the Los Angeles County Jail.
“It took years of organizing and working with probation, sheriffs, DAs — everybody who had a hand in sending kids to the juvenile module,” Stuaring said. “I met with the LA Times. It wasn’t until two young men tried to commit suicide that the LA Times picked up the story. We had a press conference at the jail, They pulled my clearance for sharing confidential information, and I had to sue to get clearance back.”
After the press coverage, the juvenile module was shut down, and 16-year-olds could no longer be shipped to adult prison yards. Additionally, a rule was changed that prevented volunteers at the county jail from speaking with the media without permission from the sheriff.
Stuaring evolved from doing detention ministry to the director of the Office of Restorative Justice while holding support groups for parents with children sentenced to life sentences. As time went by, he realized he needed to address the harm to victims—hence the need for restorative justice, which focuses on dialogues to heal both the person harmed and the person who committed the harmful act.
He believes people who have committed acts of violence and participate in self-help, figure out where that behavior came from and seek to make amends, can have a huge value to society.
“Those inside go deep. I don’t see the type of reflection out here,” Stuaring said. “It’s unique and creates unique people — people we want to mentor our kids and help our communities heal.”