Criminal justice is perhaps the sector of society where we would least expect to discover a source of hope. We know the U.S. has the world’s highest incarceration rate. We know that punishment does not typically deter crime or rehabilitate. Recidivism rates are high — in Minnesota, 24 percent of those who have been imprisoned reoffend.
Enter restorative justice, which I see as one of the most life-giving social movements in our day. It not only reshapes how we handle crime, but gives us a vision of how we can live together, with our differences of opinion, diversity, and human frailty.
I learned about restorative justice while serving as pastor in a small Minneapolis congregation. One Sunday, we discovered several of our young people had broken into the choir room and taken money out of purses. For several years as volunteer ushers, they had pocketed some of the offering.
Church leaders were torn about what do to. It was time to do research, which led to lifelong learning for all of us.
“Restorative justice,” the social worker said, “allows those who commit crimes to meet with the victims to talk about what happened and how to repair the harm.”
I was skeptical. Wouldn’t that simply blow up the issue? Wasn’t that high risk? Wouldn’t people advise us against it?
We tried it: three boys, their parents, a youth director, and congregation members. We recounted our experiences and feelings. Some no longer felt safe at church. One felt betrayed, as she had been their Sunday School teacher. Parents expressed their shock and worry — they hadn’t raised their son to be like this. The boys said they did not know why they had done it, that they did not realize it would affect the church community like this. They said they were sorry.
We were stunned, and softened, when a board member confessed, “I should be in your chair. I shoplifted as a teenager but never got caught. I feel for you being confronted like this.” We crafted an agreement: repayment and service to the church, such as lawn mowing, childcare, designing. We ended with hugs, tears, and a spontaneous circle of prayer. The soprano who had initially been most angry told the boys, “If you ever have another problem, you can talk to me because I am your friend,” then hugged them.
The experience was beyond my wildest expectations. Responsibility was taken, harm was repaired, and there was a loving forgiveness of the youth. One youth shared later that the experience compelled him to change directions. He wanted to learn how to help youths make good decisions in their lives. He has since become a juvenile probation officer.
Restorative justice says that crime is interpersonal, affecting people and communities. Everyone needs to tell their story in safe, respectful dialogue, which conveys the impact of actions. Working together on solutions to repair the harm can bring healing and closure.
For decades, restorative justice processes have proven themselves to be effective tools for addressing the effects of crime and building healthy communities.
A 1992 study of victim offender mediation in four states, conducted by the Minnesota Citizens Council on Crime and Justice in Minneapolis, cites the following statistics:
I urge others to join me in supporting the efforts of criminal justice reform in our communities. It is beyond time for us to work through our fears, and to instead practice being human together in respectful, restorative ways.