Some years ago, a devout elderly parishioner and sacristan from my parish arrived home after Mass and was confronted by a young man under the influence of drugs attempting to carjack her. She refused to give him the keys and he stabbed her causing her death. The young man was arrested and incarcerated. It turns out both the victim and the offender, and their families, were members of the parish. It was a paradox that shook all notions of reconciliation to the core for our entire parish community.
Love and hurt are both human experiences. The reason we hurt is because we love. In faith we are called first and foremost to love, but in situations of hurtful wrongdoing, a paradox emerges, an inner conflict or struggle of the heart where both love and hurt are experienced at the same time. Both are sacred because together they possess the power to transform in a profoundly unique and powerful way. So, what do we do with this paradox that both hurts and calls us to love at the same time? What do we ask of God in situations like this?
When someone is hurt by a crime, we cry out for justice, often without realizing that God’s justice, which is always restorative, is quite the opposite of human justice which seeks retribution. Contrary to popular belief, true accountability does not mean punishment. In my 34 years of working with incarcerated populations and more recently with survivors of crime, I have witnessed no greater power of accountability and healing than mercy and love. No punishment, no prison, no execution; nothing transforms, transcends, heals and changes the human heart as an experience of God’s mercy and love. It is the cry of the Gospel and of the Old Testament prophets, which views sinfulness as opportunity for transformation.
I believe it is the very reason Jesus himself neither played the victim nor sought revenge for the crimes against Him. Jesus is the model and paradigm for restorative justice. Our prayers, sacraments, and worship only have meaning to the degree that God’s redemptive love and mercy is at their core.
Restorative justice offers an alternative approach to crime and violence by way of understanding crime and wrongdoing in terms of the people and relationships broken, rather than the laws or rules broken. Restorative Justice practices are not new but were present in the days of the early church and reflect the most basic tenets of Catholic Social Teaching based on scripture. It’s what I refer to as the “Jesus model” of justice. Unfortunately, many today refer to it as “soft on crime.” However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Inmates confronting their personal trauma and character deficiencies through restorative justice process agree that its worse than any punishment.
It is known that 95% percent of those incarcerated will be released back onto our streets. Studies show, more than 60% of those released from incarceration in California will return within three years. I admit there are some who will not cause further crimes out of fear of returning to prison. However, fear is not very sustaining. But change of heart, realizing the wrong done and the hurt caused is. True accountability is when those released from prison refrain from further criminal behavior because they care enough not to cause any further hurt or suffering. Criminal behavior is a symptom of something much more deeply complex resulting primarily from developmental trauma. Without a restorative treatment process and post release provisions the old punitive order of justice does more to perpetuate crime and cause further victimization.
Restorative justice is a response to crime and violence that shifts the focus from punishment to “responsibility, rehabilitation and restoration.” It holds offenders accountable even as it opens paths to healing, especially with victims. And it addresses the needs of everyone impacted by crime: victims, offenders, families, communities, and those working in the criminal justice system. (California Catholic Conference of Bishops)
To learn more, go to the Office of Restorative Justice website at www.rcbo.org/restore or the California Catholic Conference of Bishops Restorative Justice website at: restorejustice.com.