After Richard, a young California teenager, assaults Sasha, a local genderqueer high school senior, Richard is charged with two hate crimes and is sentenced to seven years in a state correctional facility. The 57 Bus tells Richard’s story, covering both the events leading up to the senseless attack on Sasha and his subsequent arrest and prosecution. Richard is punished for his crimes to the fullest extent of the law; however, both Sasha and their parents question if this is the most effective approach to justice. Instead of adult sentencing and a lengthy prison stay, Sasha and their parents are more concerned with accountability and forgiveness. When Richard displays honest remorse and takes responsibility for his ugly behavior, Sasha and their parents’ anger begins to soften. Through The 57 Bus, author Dashka Slater argues that accountability and forgiveness are crucial components of rehabilitation, and they indeed prove vital for Richard’s own redemption and the peace of all those involved in his misguided crime. With her nontraditional approach to Richard’s punishment, Slater reasons that traditional incarceration is not necessarily the best method of punishment for underage offenders.
Both Richard and his mother, Jasmine, seek forgiveness for Richard’s attack on Sasha, which is evidence of Richard’s remorse. In the early days of Richard’s incarceration, he writes an apology to Sasha in the form of letter. He begs for Sasha’s forgiveness and takes full responsibility for his actions. “I’ll take all the consequences,” Richard writes. He gives the letter to his lawyer, Bill Du Bois, to mail, but the lawyer stashes the letter in his briefcase. Richard’s letter contains “an admission of guilt,” and his attorney “feels he can’t send it until the case is resolved.” Three days later, Richard writes Sasha a substantially longer letter, in which he again begs for Sasha’s forgiveness. He quotes the Bible and swears he is “not evil” but “actually good.” Richard vows to write Sasha two letters each week and promises to keep them in his prayers, but Richard’s lawyer withholds this letter as well, fearing that it will further incriminate his client. When Richard’s lawyer withholds his letters, he also withholds his apology, hindering Richard’s redemption and Sasha’s acceptance and closure. Jasmine likewise wants to apologize to Debbie, Sasha’s mother, for her son’s behavior. Jasmine wants to tell her “how sorry she is, mother to mother, parent to parent.” When Jasmine and Debbie finally meet months later at Richard’s first hearing, the two women embrace tearfully and each member of Richard’s family hugs Debbie, Sasha, and Karl, Sasha’s father. This example, in addition to Richard’s letters, are proof of the genuine forgiveness Richard and his family seek.
Sasha, Debbie, and Karl want to see Richard held accountable for his crimes; however, they also desire true redemption and meaningful forgiveness, and they aren’t sure that prison is the right environment to achieve this. Both Debbie and Karl are against Richard being tried as an adult, and “they hope the state will focus more on preparing him for the world beyond incarceration than on punishing him.” Furthermore, at Richard’s sentencing nearly a year after Sasha’s attack, Debbie tells the court, “We think that hatred only leads to more hatred and anger. We don’t want [Richard] to come out of prison full of hate.” Lastly, at Richard’s final progress report almost two years after committing his crimes, Karl claims that Richard’s “actions appear to have been impulsive, immature, and unpremeditated. He did make a big mistake and recognizes that. He asked for our forgiveness. […] Sasha, Debbie, and I have forgiven Richard.” In the eyes of Karl, Debbie, and Sasha, Richard has been rehabilitated, and a long stay in an adult prison will do little to enhance his redemption.
Within The 57 Bus, Slater explains the concept of restorative justice, an approach sometimes used in California “as an alternative to criminal court for juveniles accused of felonies,” which underscores her primary argument that teenagers should not necessarily be incarcerated as a form of punishment. With restorative justice, a “family group conference” is facilitated between the offender, the victim, and their families to “talk about what happened, and then make a plan for how the harm can be repaired.” As both Richard and Sasha’s families have begun to repair the harm caused by Richard’s actions, they seem to be reasonable candidates for restorative justice. By way of an example, Slater tells the story of Jeff, TC, and Pancha, three local high school students who become caught up in an “ass smacking” controversy. After Jeff slaps both TC and Pancha on their respective backsides, the school administration punishes Jeff with restorative justice rather than traditional suspension or expulsion usually reserved for sexual harassment. The conferencing between Jeff and his victims results in his genuine understanding of the pain and embarrassment his actions have caused, and the three ultimately become friends. Without restorative justice, Slater maintains, Jeff’s harassment would have “blown over, but the residue would have remained.” The open and redemptive qualities of restorative justice repair the harm of Jeff’s poor behavior. Of course, the district attorney, Nancy O’Malley, refuses to entertain restorative justice in Richard’s case and declares it “absurd.” “This is not a case where he is not going to be incarcerated,” O’Malley says. “We cannot ignore what he did.” Still, Sujatha Baliga, America’s foremost expert on restorative justice, declares Sasha and Richard the “perfect candidates for this dialogue,” contending, “all of them are such gorgeously enlightened, beautiful people.” In the end, Slater argues that Richard’s genuine remorse and Sasha’s willingness to forgive are crucial to redemption, acceptance, and peace, and Richard’s incarceration is not required to achieve this goal. The fact that Richard spends five years in a correctional facility anyway suggests that the American justice system is far from accepting restorative justice as an approach to criminal rehabilitation.
Accountability, Redemption, and Forgiveness ThemeTracker
Accountability, Redemption, and Forgiveness Quotes in The 57 Bus
“Stop right here, and for a moment imagine yourself forced to submit to being handcuffed and see what kind of feelings will be aroused in you,” a Chicago lawyer named John P. Altgeld wrote in an 1884 book called Our Penal Machinery and Its Victims. Arguing that “submission to that one act of degradation prepares many a young man for a career of crime,” he took the reader through the experience of a youthful offender—which began with the accused, usually arrested for vagrancy or disorderly conduct, spending the night in the police station among older, more vicious criminals. He compared the criminal justice system to “a great mill which, somehow or other, supplies its own grist, a maelstrom with draws from the outside, and then keeps its victims moving in a circle until swallowed in the vortex.”
“I am not a thug, gangster, hoodlum, nor monster. Im a young African American male who’s made a terrible mistake. Not only did I hurt you but I hurt your family & friends and also my family & friends for I have brought shame to them and our country and I shall be punished which is going to be hard for me because I’m not made to be incarcerated.”
“People have different habitats,” he explained. “Some people have it better than others. They grew up in good neighborhoods. Their family has jobs. They have good income. They don’t understand. Their life is so good, they think everybody’s life is good. They don’t understand the struggles people go through. I don’t know where you grew up at, if it’s like a low-income area, where there’s lots of violence and crime. But if you grew up in a low-income area and all you see is crime and drugs? If you have family that does crime? You see it. It has an impact on you. If you’re around it a lot, it’s hard to do good.”
“RJ isn’t a guarantee of leniency,” Baliga cautioned. “It’s about dispensing with punitiveness for its own sake and trying to produce an outcome that will be more healing for everyone involved.”
Still, Baliga knew that there was little hope of diverting Richard from the criminal justice system entirely. “Given the severity of the harm to Sasha, we didn’t expect that the DA would allow the case to be diverted to restorative justice,” she said.
But if anyone seemed right for restorative justice, it was these two families, who had already expressed compassion for one another. “They were perfect candidates for this dialogue,” she said. “All of them were such gorgeously enlightened, beautiful people.”
The fire was becoming a more distant memory, even though Sasha still wore compression stockings. “Apart from some scars, I’m all healed, basically,” Sasha said. It was hard for people to believe it, but Sasha didn’t feel traumatized by what had happened. When the physical pain faded, the emotional pain did as well.
“I don’t really feel hated, Sasha explained. “Especially since after I was attacked, the whole world was supporting me. I felt like one person hates me—maybe.”
“We do not understand your actions,” Debbie went on. “But we also think that hatred only leads to more hatred and anger. We don’t want you to come out of prison full of hate. Following the incident, communities near and far affirmed Sasha’s—and everyone’s—right to not be harassed or hurt or bullied for how they dress, or whether they are gay or trans or agender. We truly hope that you will gain some understanding and empathy in the years to come. Maybe sometime in the future you will be the one coming to the aid of someone being bullied.”
“From the start we have been opposed to Richard’s being tried as an adult,” he said. “His actions appear to have been impulsive, immature, and unpremeditated. He did make a big mistake and recognizes that. He asked for our forgiveness.” Karl’s voice broke. “Sasha, Debbie, and I have forgiven Richard,” he whispered. “We hope the state will focus more on preparing him for the world beyond incarceration than on punishing him.”