A Father’s Motivation
by Ronald Simpson-Bey
June 16, 2023
Since 2001, every Father’s Day has been a bittersweet moment for me. Sweet because of my four loving daughters. But bitter because my namesake and only son, Ronald D. Simpson III, was murdered on Father’s Day 2001. To add insult to injury, I was serving time in prison at the time for a crime that I did not commit and a conviction that would later be overturned.
My son’s killer was a 14-year-old child. Conventional wisdom would suggest that I would have sought revenge, retribution, or some similar form of punitive punishment towards my son’s killer. But for me, conventional wisdom is part of the problem in our country, because it promotes an eye-for-an-eye mentality, instead of making room for second chances and redemption. However, I prefer to demonstrate radical love and hospitality, which is where we make a place in the world for people who even cause us harm.
From the time of my son’s death, I have always said that his passing was my personal contribution to the Restorative Justice Movement. At the end of the day, the 14-year-old child who killed my son was still a child. I saw more value in forgiving him and giving him a second chance, than to condemn him to a life of eternal torture and trauma in our draconian prison system. As a result, I advocated for him to be treated as a juvenile and not an adult in the judicial system.
I did not want my son’s killer to spend the rest of his life in prison for the worst decision he had made in his short life, because it would serve no useful purpose. It wasn’t going to bring my son back. And it would only make an already bad situation worse by taking another child away from his family and further erode the fabric of our community.
We don’t make our communities safe by creating artificial lines between “people victimized by crime” and “people who commit crimes.” We know that many of the children accused of crime have themselves been victims of violence, neglect, poverty, inadequate schools, and failing social services themselves. In addition, many of our families are suffering after having lost some members to violent crime and others to incarceration.
Watch this 2016 interview with Ronald telling his story:
In the years since my son’s death, I have worked tirelessly to not only change the failed societal systems that continue to inflict oppression upon marginalized communities, but I have sought to create the “heart and mind change” that will make true societal change and criminal justice reform a sustainable reality.
At the time of my son’s death, because I was poor and in prison, I was not considered a “typical victim,” and I struggled to have my voice heard by the powers that be in determining what punishment and accountability looked like for the child that killed my son. Based on the premise that those closest to the problems are closest to the solutions, in the intervening years since his death, one of the bigger achievements in criminal justice reform that I have played a role in is the inclusion and elevation of the voices of people directly impacted by the criminal legal system in the conversation and decisions around criminal justice reform.
Just a few short years ago, directly impacted people were excluded from the criminal justice reform conversation. However, we are now front and center in the effort. As an example, this week I was a featured speaker at the Correctional Leaders Association 50-State Symposium on Corrections Workforce in Washington, D.C., to help address the collateral consequences created by the staffing crisis in our nation’s prison systems and to help develop remedies to address them.
These types of engagements are becoming the norm and not the exception. Having traditional adversaries sitting at the same table having productive dialog around meaningful change is a powerful sign that criminal justice reform overall is headed in the right direction, and for me it is a testament to the fact that my son’s death was not in vain and this work is something that my daughters can be proud of.
Ronald D. Simpson-Bey is the Executive Vice President of JustLeadershipUSA, the only national-level, tax-exempt criminal justice reform organization that is both founded by and led by formerly incarcerated people.
(Photo from Tina Brown Live Media)