Jailed at the museum
LOOKING ASKANCE - Joseph T. Gonzales (The Freeman) - October 6, 2019 - 12:00am

People close to me know that aside from a legal career, I have been diverting my attentions to the field of art. That's not too far a stretch, as there are plenty of lawyers who have either combined those fields (like Gigo Alampay, who opened his gallery while teaching in Law school) or entirely left lawyering for the art world (like that lawfirm partner who upped and left her practice to open a community gallery).

So, it was a pleasant surprise for me to discover that art doesn't just co-exist in lawyers' minds and hearts, it can actually be applied in the criminal justice system!

See, New York is test piloting what I would call "art probation", where some accused offenders do art therapy instead of undergoing a full-blown trial and being sentenced to jail. What a spectacularly innovative idea, I thought.

What happens is, for some minor crimes like shoplifting or trespassing, the offender is given a choice by authorities to go through the art program. So the district attorney's office actually evaluates cases and the accused to see whether it’s possible that art can help. If the offender is up for it (much better than the hassle of a trial and jail), he goes to the Brooklyn Museum.

At the museum, offenders are not only exposed to artwork and asked to reflect on it, but get to participate in interpretation classes. They're given materials then asked to create their own artworks, where presumably, all their angst at being arrested and being exposed as criminals get to be exorcised.

I’m sure psychologists will have a solid theoretical rationale for the efficacy of those sessions. Indeed, the reception by participants has been glowing, if write-ups are to be believed. There was a 95% positive review from the accused. (In my brains, I would probably be spectacularly grateful too for not ever having to hire a lawyer and appear in court.)

If I were to guess, that could be the compassionate side of society showing its face and telling citizens, hey, we know you made a mistake. But there’s a way for you to atone for your mistake that doesn't end up mentally disfiguring you or giving you more stress that the real world is already dishing out - so here's a therapeutic way for you to work out your anger and issues. Quiet time to reflect. An outlet to express. A chance to be grateful for compassion and a chance at redemption.

What a wonderful message to society from society, a self-reinforcing message that the world actually cares for its members. (From Brooklyn, the pilot program is expanding to other parts of New York like Manhattan and Bronx).

That could be something our own local justice system could benefit from, especially with juvenile offenders or smalltime crooks. People caught snatching food off a table or simply jaywalking. First-time offenders, petty criminals. Prosecuting these categories of crimes take up precious resources from the justice system. Resources that could be used more productively elsewhere?

Why not let our fiscals and judges focus on heinous crimes, cases involving politicians who greedily rape our coffers, or worse, massacre our journalists, instead of distracting their focus with wives slapping their husbands or vagrants sleeping in parks? There is a huge case build up in the courts, and maybe some of those cases can just be resolved with an art therapy plea deal.

(Maybe, the worst ones can be exposed to bad artworks and then allowed to channel their shock and revulsion into demolishing the artistic nightmare to smithereens).

Justice doesn't have to be punitive all the time - and here is one way to temper harsh laws. We could just end up recasting our society in a softer, gentler penumbra with solutions like these.


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