Sharon Krum, The Times: Forget community service, a US judge packs offenders off to a course in Eastern spirituality
Standing in the Santa Fe Municipal Court listening to the judge hand down her sentence, Megan Rodriguez thought that she must be on Candid Camera. After pleading guilty to one charge of domestic abuse (hurling a lamp at her boyfriend), Rodriguez, 19, was sentenced to a Japanese tea ceremony, t’ai chi classes, acupuncture and 12 weeks of meditation.
“When I got the sentence, I kept thinking, what is the judge saying? Medi-what? A meditation sentence? I asked the court clerk if this was for real. I was sure I would get community service and pick up garbage like everyone else.”
But in a move that is causing sniggers in some quarters and applause in others, depending on what side of the New Age fence you stand on, the city of Santa Fe, in the American state of New Mexico, is pioneering an alternative sentencing programme that has offenders taking deep breaths instead of cleaning their local city square. And no, it is not a joke.
“The idea is to show these offenders, most of whom are convicted of domestic abuse, that using certain techniques, you can learn to control the impulse to be violent,” says Mark De Francis, a psychologist at the New Mexico Corrections Department, a doctor of oriental medicine and brains behind the new programme.
“T’ai chi (slow, dance-like martial arts movements), in particular, teaches that what you thought was simply a reflexive, uncontrollable movement is entirely within your control.”
It was late last year when the Santa Fe Municipal Court Judge Frances Gallegos approached De Francis looking for an alternative to the standard “community service” and “anger management training” sentencing options. “She said that they weren’t working well enough, the recidivism rate was still too high.”
De Francis suggested that the judge adopt an Eastern approach to the problem, given that the Western solution was failing. In fact, scientific studies have shown that meditation reduces stress levels, while a 2001 study reported in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that t’ai chi could increase immunity and reduce stress.
With the judge’s imprimatur, De Francis set about designing a programme that would teach offenders how to manage their emotions, all based on the principles of Eastern spirituality. Today the 12-week course, held twice a week, begins with t’ai chi, followed by a tea ceremony, open discussion, then ends with a 20-minute meditation and acupuncture.
“T’ai chi teaches them to slow down their physical bodies,” De Francis says of his multi-faceted approach. “The tea ceremony teaches respect for and interaction with others. Meditation, through visualisation and breathing, shows them that they can calm their minds. This is a new concept for them, but very empowering.” In fact during the meditation, De Francis insists that offenders wear a sleeping mask to block all visual stimuli, then floods the room with aromatherapy. Once they are sufficiently relaxed, he places an acupuncture needle between their eyes to generate emotional balance.
Unsurprisingly, new arrivals to the class often resist their court mandated “touchy feely” classes, not to mention the acupuncture needle, which De Francis says takes some coaxing. “In the beginning some clearly don’t want to be there,” he says. “They have never encountered Eastern practices and don’t understand what’s going to happen. Some joke, disrupt or refuse to participate.” But he adds, with a note of triumph: “Over time they start to respond to the classes. The men really like t’ai chi, particularly the idea that you can still be a warrior without hurting anyone. The females I find are better at meditation. I think once women become mothers, they learn patience faster.”
This was the case with Rodriguez, whose first impression of the class was: “This is too weird. I couldn’t believe my sentence didn’t involve any type of punishment, that all I was supposed to do was learn about being calm.” But Rodriguez, who works in an animal shelter, says she was intrigued enough to participate in all the disciplines and believes that she has benefited. “The t’ai chi and the meditation taught me that you might get angry in a moment but that things pass, and just to breathe and count it down.”
Tetros Ortiz, a 36-year-old manager charged with resisting arrest, told friends that his sentence was to show up at a meditation class, and their jaws dropped. But he is now a giddy convert. After completing the programme, he’s sure he will never set foot in a courthouse again. “I got a lot out of t’ai chi. It taught me to control my strength, and relaxed me.”
He also credits the tea ceremony with teaching him to communicate gently with others, particularly at work. “My co-workers have really noticed a difference.” He says that meditation showed him “that if you think you can’t calm your mind down, you’re wrong. You can. When I get angry now, I think about what I’m going to say; before, I’d just start yelling.”
All of this is music to Mark De Francis’s ears (he concedes that there are some offenders who don’t derive any benefit because of their continued resistance to the programme), but whether this kind of alternative punishment will reduce recidivism remains to be seen.
De Francis says that anecdotal evidence is promising. “When I run into graduates of the programme, they tell me the benefits have been ongoing. I hope that statistics will prove the importance of incorporating mind-body-spirit programmes into alternative sentencing everywhere. I believe the solution in life is finding your inner, rather than outer, opponent to do battle with.”