Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 81 on his birthday January 15, 2010.

He received the Nobel Peace Prize at age 35, and although he only lived for 39 years, his impact on the world was immense.  Not only is he a hero for his work to end racial injustice in the United States, but he left a legacy of hope that we can improve our world through non-violent means.

When I was a trial lawyer years ago I worked hard to improve my speaking skills.  Once I checked out a cassette tape full of his recorded speeches from the public library.  I spent a couple hours a day for two weeks driving around on O’ahu, listening to Dr. King’s powerful voice and his wise ideas.

Later when I switched careers, from lawyer to public health educator, his ideas rang in my head as I prepared conflict resolution training programs.

Something that Dr. King said, which especially resonated with me is this:

People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not properly communicated with each other.

We are afraid of the unknown, and people unlike us.  More than racial differences today, I think social and economic differences are growing between people.

Most people involved with the justice system are poor, and poor people are hammered by the justice system more than middle class and rich people.

When I worked in a criminal court I could predict who would get sent straight to jail, and who would get a chance to go home and say goodbye to their families, purely by their financial status.  The poor people almost always went straight to jail.

We should take refuge in the wisdom of Dr. King’s words and work on communicating with people unlike us.

Restorative processes give us the chance to engage in communication with people while the traditional system gives us lawyers and others to speak for us.  It is a paternalistic system.

Of course sometimes courts and lawyers are necessary and I am not saying we don’t ever need them.  But often we could use restorative processes and cultivate more communication between people.  Even at sentencing after a trial in a criminal case, we could provide restorative processes in a private setting to allow people hurt by crime to engage in communication with the people who hurt them.  It could be a choice, and if they did not want to do it, of course we must respect that decision, but we could provide the opportunity.

The federal government and others report that most victims want to meet with the people who hurt them:  http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/ovc/publications/infores/restorative_justice/96517-gdlines_victims-sens/guide4.html.

Dr. King’s work embodies many restorative justice principals.  I thank him for leaving us the legacy that we can change the world by non-violent means.  And his beautiful booming voice still rings in my head….(I suspect it does in my two sons too who were with me in the car listening to all the wonderful speeches….)