Sonoma's Martina Lutz Schneider to share stage with victims who have found forgiveness
The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world by far. Greater, even, than the totalitarian states of North Korea or China.
According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice, in 2016 the United States had 2.3 million people incarcerated in 5,885 state, federal, juvenile, local and military prisons. Twenty-five percent of the world’s incarcerated individuals are held by a country that comprises less than 5 percent of the earth’s total population.
America, it would seem, holds to the efficacy of incarceration. America likes to lock ‘em up.
But Martina Lutz Schneider, a facilitator of victim-offender dialogs (VOD) for the Restorative Justice Ahimsa Collective, has a more nuanced perspective on crime.
“We distinguish between the deed and the doer,” Lutz Schneider said. “A person can do a terrible thing without forever being a terrible person.”
Restorative justice is a model that reforms offenders who have caused serious harm through an intensive process that culminates in accountability. Simultaneously, victims are mentored on a separate journey, with forgiveness the optimal outcome. When both parties have made appropriate progress, and if the crime victim desires contact, they are brought together for a facilitated Victim Offender Dialogue (VOD), face-to-face on different sides of the same crime.
“The offenders have to really face what they did then. Nothing is more impactful than having to look a crying mother in the eye,” Lutz Schneider said.
On Sunday, Jan. 13, Lutz Schneider will lead a discussion on the healing aspects of restorative justice, with three people victimized by serious felonies on the panel to share what forgiveness has meant in their lives. The event takes place in Burlingame Hall at the First Congregational Church, at 252 W. Spain St.
“The ability to move from anger to forgiveness is relevant to all levels of harm and conflict,” Lutz Schneider said. “Anger is poisonous. Forgiveness is the pinnacle of spiritual maturity.”
Patty O’Reilly is the artistic director of the Sonoma Conservatory of Dance, and has lived in Sonoma for 26 years. In April of 2004, when her daughters were just 12 and 7, mere weeks from her 13th wedding anniversary, an alcoholic got into his car and pulled onto Mark West Springs Road.
Patty’s husband, Danny O’Reilly, an avid cyclist, was pedaling home when Mike Albertson hit him at full speed. Danny was thrown 25 feet into high weeds and brush, but Albertson didn’t alert first responders to his whereabouts.
“The police were cleaning up, thinking they were responding to a solo spinout when one of them saw Danny’s bike,” O’Reilly said. “That haunted me for a long time. He was almost left there, and I hated Mike Albertson for that.”
Alberston’s blood alcohol was more than three times the legal limit, and he was eventually sentenced to 13.5 years. But O’Reilly was in a prison of her own by then, too, shattered by grief and rage.
“One minute you’re a functioning family, the next I’m a tense single mother screaming at my own kids. I hated Mike Albertson. It would have been fine with me if he were locked up forever,” O’Reilly said.
A few months after Danny died, O’Reilly had a particularly bad parenting moment. “I lost it,” she said. “And at that moment I realized there was a poison inside me. I knew I had to forgive Mike Albertson for my own sake, but even more for my daughters. I was so broken in that moment that I was able to forgive him almost instantaneously, not because of any strength that I had, but because I didn’t have any strength.”
O’Reilly then engaged in the VOD training, and Albertson - from Folsom Prison - undertook training at his end. They met in September of 2006, and though O’Reilly nearly pulled out of the encounter, the experience ended up transforming her pain. “I found out that the word vengeance comes from ancient Greek and it means ‘full application of justice.’ The dialogue was my vengeance in its original sense. It allowed me to tell Mike Albertson how his actions impacted us. It didn’t make the pain go away. I still cried a lot. I still got upset and angry, but I didn’t have the poison anymore.”
Thomas Morgan was a 40-year-old patrol officer in Kern County in 1997 when a call of “shots fired” came through his radio. He and a trainee officer sped toward the location, where they apprehended two juveniles in a suspicious vehicle. The trainee removed one boy from the passenger seat, but then lost control of the situation.
“My partner yelled something about a gun, and Jason Samuel took off running,” Morgan said. “I started after him.”