Last week I attended a conference on Restorative Justice at Villanova University that brought together people from various disciplines and legal categories. There were judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, probation and police officers, sociologists, theologians, social workers, educators and ministers of all stripes. There were survivors of crimes, criminal offenders, family members of victims and family members of prisoners. Some people’s experiences put them in various categories. The speakers and sessions were excellent and I learned much about this model, which seeks to repair the damage done by crime (or any sort of offense) by facilitating dialogue between those impacted by the offense—survivors, offenders and the community, both immediate and far-flung. Restorative Justice draws on principles present in various indigenous practices and has been employed in post-apartheid South Africa and post-genocide Rwanda, among other places. It is also gaining traction in parts of the American criminal justice system.
Cop shows, legal dramas and even the news so often make crime and the judicial process seem sexy and sensational. There is nothing sexy about the long, hard, shaky work of coming to terms with life after a violent crime. Neither is there an easy road for those who seek to come to terms with the harm they have caused and to re-integrate into society after being branded a criminal. The image of a ripple was used to describe the impact that crime has on individuals, families and communities and the way that one act, so often the dark tip of a mountain of injustice, can cause unimagined and widespread fall-out.
While utterly un-glamorous, the restorative justice model offers a rich resource for those willing to engage in the process and is a gift to the community as a whole. Participation is always voluntary and the goal is not that the survivor or the victim’s loved ones necessarily “forgive” the offender. Sometimes people work the process and conclude that they cannot offer forgiveness or cannot do so at the time. In other cases, offenders and survivors build deep bonds and discover seeds of healing in the process. Restorative justice does not advocate impunity for offenders. It is about honestly assessing the harm that has occurred on all sides and trying to repair as much of the damage as possible.
Some people came to the conference seeking hope and resources to cope with the anguish of losing a loved one to violence or to prison and others came to share accounts of healing after horrendous loss. Not surprisingly, many people experience the process as a spiritual one- one including passion, death, conversion, and resurrection.
I was reminded that none of us are outside the reach of the ripples of the injuries that are committed in our communities- local and global. If we doubt this, we need only reflect on how listening to the news affects our attitudes and sense of security. We all have a practical (as well as moral) stake in repairing the wounds present in our communities and in the world. Reparation not only helps people to heal but can also short circuit the vicious cycle of recidivism and vengeance. There is no shortage of recent evidence that rage and alienation can have deadly consequences, and restorative justice offers solid principles and guidance on how to break cycles of offense and attack.
I left the conference humbled by the depth of the work that is being undertaken by participants in restorative justice processes. I am also hopeful that we as individuals, communities, churches and nations can avail ourselves of the wisdom and light present in the restorative justice model.