Saturday 31 October 2020

I first heard the term “restorative justice” in a class with Dr. Douglas Campbell at Duke Divinity School about 2 years ago. It was not something that we spent a large amount of time discussing, but it was enough to spark my curiosity into the assumptions that I, as an American citizen, have made about the criminal justice system. While I had recognized that the United States’ incarceration rate was high, and perhaps unreasonably so, I hadn’t thought about any alternatives to the criminal justice system as it stands. Restorative justice is one such alternative, and as I will demonstrate, it is one which the US justice system should strongly consider because of its emphasis on restoration for the offender (instead of punishment) and the opportunity it provides for offenders and victims to reconcile, thus creating stronger communities.

The US criminal justice system is premised upon the idea that when wrong-doing occurs, the wrong-doer needs to be punished. At first glance, this is a reasonable thought. Because we do not want wrong-doing to keep happening, there needs to be some means of discouraging offenders from repeating wrongful behavior. By sending a person to jail/prison, offenders are both stopped from repeating this behavior because they are locked away in a prison cell, and thus, physically cannot harm others in their communities, and this locking away is not a pleasant experience, which serves to discourage them from repeating the behavior upon re-entry to society, lest they end up in prison again. However, statistics show that the recidivism rate, or the reincarceration rate, remains high. In a study performed by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 76.6% of prisoners released from prison in 2005 were rearrested within 5 years.[1] Restorative justice advocates maintain that this high recidivism rate is due to the fact that prisons are not oriented towards the restoration of offenders; prisons, regardless of how they were originally designed, have become primarily centers of punishment, and thus they do not prepare offenders to flourish upon re-entering society.

Why is restoration so important? A common principle found within Christian theology is that when someone sins, or offends another person, her understanding of right and wrong becomes confused.[2] In other words, a person’s habitual wrongful behavior can and often does distort one’s view of what it means to live rightly. If this principle is loosely applied to the criminal justice system, then we might be able to see how placing an offender in a cell surrounded by many other offenders in cells would be ineffective for preparing someone for life upon reentry to the general society. What offenders most need are other people who can help them to understand why what they did was wrong and how they might go about making better choices. For example, if a person stole because she found herself in a place of economic hardship, she might simply need help developing skills in order to get a job and then pay for her own food. While restoration involves thinking through one’s behavior and what it means to live rightly, this also means that we need to support offenders in very practical ways to help her do so.

Returning to the second part of our thesis, proponents of restorative justice hope to give offenders and victims the opportunity to reconcile. This second goal is not unrelated to the first. In order to help offenders think through an instance where they harmed another person, it is often helpful to bring them into discussion with the person they harmed. In this way, the victim may share her perspective on the event of injustice, explain why it was harmful to her, and hopefully, gain closure after a traumatic experience. Through her explanation, the offender is confronted with the effects of his behavior and often shares the emotions of the victim in an act of empathy. This serves to reinforce the wrongfulness of the offender’s behavior and create an opportunity—not only for the offender to make this situation right—but to commit to living rightly in the future. In doing so, the offender and victim might walk away from the process better than when they entered, both individually, and perhaps together as well. If more victims and offenders and purposefully seek reconciliation, our communities will be strengthened in the overcoming of injustice.

By way of conclusion, I want to emphasize that this short introduction to restorative justice could never do justice to the intricacies of restorative justice practices. It is one thing to talk about these theories in principle and another to practice them. Of course, there will be some offenders who may not want the opportunity to reconcile with their victims or desire the chance to be restored as individuals. There may be instances where victims do not feel comfortable meeting with offenders or who cannot extend forgiveness to them. Because restorative justice is a relatively informal process (i.e., it cannot be systemized in the same way the US’s current criminal justice system is), there is much room for restorative justice practices to end in disappointment. However, the theory behind these practices is one which the current criminal justice system—one that has created the highest incarceration rate in the world—has not taken under consideration: all people have dignity and ought to have the opportunity for restoration. By current standards, criminals are defined entirely by their behavior and ought to be sent away to live with other criminals where they cannot affect “the rest of us.” Instead, restorative justice proponents insist that people should not be defined by an action of injustice and must be given the chance to live in a new and right way. Because of this, the field of restorative justice is open to everyone who believes that all human beings have dignity, that they cannot be reduced to their actions, and that people might surprise you if they are given the opportunity to change.

[1] Matthew R. Durose, Alexia D. Cooper, and Howard N. Snyder, Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010, NCJ 244205, April 2014.

[2] Romans 1:18-25


Hannah James is from Morgan Hill, California and received her M.T.S from Duke Divinity School. Hannah’s primary theological interest is in the doctrine of reconciliation and how it can be used to address the mass incarceration crisis in contexts like that of the United States. For her doctoral thesis, she draws upon key insights of Karl Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation in order to develop a theologically-grounded account of restorative justice for the socio-political sphere.


Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

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