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Sofia Demartino: The future of criminal justice in Iowa must be about community

Gazette - 9/25/2022

Sep. 25—Fifteen-year-old Pieper Lewis was beaten, raped, and trafficked in the Hawkeye state. In her desperation to avoid further abuse, she killed her rapist and she was charged with murder. At 16, when many in this state are receiving driver's licenses and planning where they will have dinner before homecoming, Pieper plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Last week, at the age of 17, Pieper received her sentence: probation and $150,000 restitution to the family of the man who raped her. Her story is reminiscent of the now widely known Cyntoia Brown case — except that Pieper has been spared 15 years in prison.

So often, we view criminal justice and crime in general from the detached perspective of an uninvolved observer. Us versus them. "Crime" as some sort of invasive pest that can be eradicated with more men in uniform. "Criminals" as people very unlike ourselves; people we don't really envision as part of our community at all.

Popular culture certainly upholds that detachment. Night after night, some of the longest running entertainment includes shows like the many iterations of Law and Order, Criminal Minds, and so on that reduce crime and punishment to a 30 minute window (less time for ad revenue.)

I had occasion recently to hear from United States Magistrate Judge Zia M. Faruqui, who described the justice system in a very different way — as a component of community. Judge Faruqui described the system of public defenders, defense attorneys volunteering to serve as court appointed counsel, and community members volunteering to serve as custodian for individuals being offered supervised release.

I asked what had caused him to develop this perspective. He described the impact of community on his own upbringing — as a child, his neighbors had been so involved in his daily life after the passing of his father that they spent hours each night assisting him with calculus homework and supporting his mother through the difficult shift to single parent. "When someone has community support," he said, "That can change the trajectory of their lives." Judge Faruqui went on to discuss the importance of helping to address risk factors and barriers that contribute to a person's likelihood to commit or become the victim of a crime, including housing, employment, and mental health.

In the book "Our Kids: The American dream in Crisis," Robert D Putnam researches and describes the impact of high-resource parents leveraging their networks and their bank accounts to connect their children with access to opportunities lower socio-economic status children do not have. In addition to missing out on some critical social skills, job prospects, athletic opportunities, and educational resources, many kids (even in Iowa) are also experiencing the threat of or actually being unhoused, a lack of transportation to school, adequate nutrition, and abuse. Further, there is significant overlap in under-resourced populations between those who are victims of violent crime and those who are likely to become offenders.

When we reposition ourselves and approach interacting with those who are in the criminal justice system as if we were interacting with members of our community, what does that look like? Judge Faruqui described addressing social causes. In Eastern Iowa, some organizations are implementing Restorative Justice strategies — interventions designed to encourage reconciliation with victims and the community as a whole.

Considering the persistent inequities within Iowa criminal justice, the move to a more "inclusive" Iowa cannot be accomplished without addressing the entirety of the issue — from the root causes of crime to the slanted distribution of punishment ...

Which brings me back to survivor Pieper Lewis. When her sentence was handed down, Pieper's former high school teacher created a GoFundMe that has, to date, tripled the $150,000 she was ordered to pay the family of the man who raped her as a child. The community rallied around Pieper when the criminal justice system did not. The soon to be former Polk County Attorney had the discretion to choose how Pieper would be charged, and opted to subject her to adult court. While that particular elected official has announced after 32 years that he will not seek another term, a new crop of candidates awaits the decision of the voters. The decisions we make about who should hold these critical offices has the greatest impact on the people most likely to interact with the criminal justice system — we, the community, are in control.

This year and every year, it is incumbent upon us to ask candidates for real action plans to address our biggest barriers, and hold them accountable once they are in office. If we truly value equity, it has to be more than a T-shirt and a selfie in the middle of First Avenue from the summer of 2020.

Sofia DeMartino is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments:


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