I packed my bags, loaded them into the backseat of my Toyota RAV4 and drove to the Redwood City library nestled in their bustling, vibrant downtown. I parked behind the building, grabbed my laptop and rushed inside to join a panel with fellow public defenders to share my thoughts on race, poverty and mass incarceration. After a couple hours decrying our society’s incarceration epidemic, lamenting about our addiction to locking people up and calling upon the audience to re-think our use of jail and prison as our sole and primary means of justice, I hustled back to my car so I could drive to the San Francisco Airport (SFO) to catch my red eye to the East Coast.
I stepped to the driver’s door only to find shattered glass strewn on the ground and throughout the backseat, my backpack and suitcase vanished in the Redwood City darkness, my Ray-Ban eyeglasses, bottle of Aqua Di Gio cologne, Asics running shoes, copy of the Quran, favorite Silicon Valley De-Bug “Protect Your People” T-shirt, comfy Uniqlo sweats, new jeans and all my other belongings for the upcoming trip gone. I called my fellow panelist, friend and Aider & Abettor co-host Avi Singh to help me out. He took the remaining items in my car (including my bag of basketball stuff and my beloved softball glove) and stashed them in his trunk. He emptied out an extra backpack and lent it to me so I had something to carry my laptop with. I drove to the airport with my broken window, braving the brisk air on Highway 101 to make my flight. I parked in the SFO lot and ran toward the terminal, hoping that the car would be there when I got back four days later.
I went on my trip and slowly and methodically purchased items to replace my stolen stuff – a toothbrush, deodorant and a cell phone charger at the airport, pajamas, t-shirts and jeans at a J Crew outlet, cologne and grooming stuff at a local drugstore. After roaming the East Coast for a few days, I returned to SFO and found my car, still broken but still there. Upon my return to San Jose, I ventured to make everything else whole: replaced the broken window, bought some new Uniqlo sweats, ordered a new Quran and replacement glasses. All told, about a thousand dollars and countless hours spent fixing my car and replacing everything.
As I begrudgingly roamed San Jose getting my new car window, ordering new glasses and draining my bank account, I wondered about who stole my things, pondered what I’d want to happen if authorities found him/her, what outcome I’d advocate for with the DA or a Judge if given the opportunity. Would I maintain my crusade against incarceration as a means of justice now that I was the inconvenienced, traumatized victim of a crime? Or would the instinct to incarcerate that has burrowed into each of our souls, that manifests in the “you do the crime, you do the time” mantra, come out in me? Would I itch to condemn this offender a “thief” or “felon,” and define them by the worst thing they’ve ever done (or the worst thing they ever did to me)?
To answer those questions, I’d want to know more. Something challenging in the person’s life must’ve spurred this desperate conduct, led them to smash my window for the mere possibility of what laid inside my suitcase and backpack. If the culprit were caught and the charges found true, I’d want to sit with them, have a meal and just talk. I’d explore what laid beneath their behavior, what brought them to that point: Trauma? Homelessness? Unemployment? Drug addiction? Debt? Mental Health struggles? A little bit of everything?
I’d want those answers delivered to a merciful criminal justice system that sought not to cage the offender in our decrepit jails and dehumanizing prisons and ultimately ignore the roots of the crime. Instead, I’d call upon our courts to exhibit compassion, to heal and remedy the roots of the crime through the use of supervision, wraparound services, residential treatment facilities, halfway houses or counseling centers. I’d demand system responses more creative and effective than incarceration that would prevent the cycle that manifested in these actions from ever starting again.
In that same contact, I would want the person to know me, to hear the agony, annoyance, frustration and pain he/she caused. By planting these seeds of empathy, they could appreciate the real consequences of their behavior, perhaps think about my humanity the next time they felt the itch again. I’d want them, if at all possible, to return my belongings and make me whole for the remaining losses. Rather than jail, I’d desire they join me in serving the community at a cause that I support and love, holding them accountable while also strengthening our human connection.
I reflected further. Would I want this person branded with a felony conviction for their auto burglary, vandalism and grand theft? Surely, I’d want to ensure that the system documented this person’s criminal history to appropriately respond to any future criminal behavior. But I’d have no interest in tagging this fellow human being with a felony conviction amidst a culture that takes that label and defines people by the worst thing(s) they’ve ever done, that robs them of their right to and capacity for redemption, that casts them into society’s fringe.
Incarceration isn’t my instinct or answer to what happened to me. Jail isn’t my measure of justice. Labeling and “otherizing” the offender isn’t my response. Instead, I’d want to grasp this person’s context, not just condemn their conduct. I’d want them to recognize my humanity. Through this framework, we don’t excuse or justify their misdeeds, but instead cultivate mutual understanding to respond to crime effectively and with grace, to help elevate and heal our community rather than locking up our most broken fellow human beings.
I hope we cross paths soon.
Follow Sajid Khan's writings at his tumblr: Closing Arguments