As we know, it is rare that any form of dispute resolution makes it onto network television in prime time. Friday night’s episode of Blue Bloods—the New York police drama starring Tom Selleck—featured a story line about restorative justice. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a good example. In the story, a young woman whose family was killed when she was a child got a letter from the convicted killer. He wanted her to participate in a restorative justice process. If you want to just watch the episode without knowing more, the link is here.
After a few twists, the young woman agrees to participate. Tom Selleck joins, although he is the New York Police Commissioner he was a police officer who had worked on the case. Post-conviction restorative justice processes for murder cases do happen. But, it would be rare for the offender themselves to reach out to the victim’s family—that would normally be done by the facilitator. And, before any direct contact there would be preparation to explain the process and what to expect. Restorative Justice practitioners often talk about spending more time in preparation with the parties than the actual process may take because they want to be sure everyone is prepared and knows what to expect. In the world of TV, that level of preparation doesn’t make for good drama. Instead, this young woman goes to the prison and meets with the man who murdered her family with apparently no preparation and little support. It is no surprise (spoiler alert!) that she ends up urging the man to commit suicide and seems to leave the experience as angry and hurt as she was when she entered.
The man had been seriously mentally ill and delusional when he committed the murders and didn’t get health care until after his arrest. Now two decades later, after being medicated and treated, he fully understands and regrets what he did. It is a shame that Blue Bloods didn’t use the story line as an opportunity to invite viewers to think critically about how we can provide better mental health treatment to prevent such tragedies or to think about how to respond to what appeared to be a sincere apology. It is also a shame that the show was so dismissive of a process that could be used more, and used well, in the criminal justice system in this country. The only line in the program that seemed to acknowledge the positive possibilities of restorative justice was a throw-away when one of Tom Selleck’s children, who is also a police officer, said something like “I could see it being good to do with kids, but not with adults.”
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