Posts tagged with: restorative justice

In a fine post over at the History News Network (HT: Religion in America), Jennifer Graber, assistant professor of religious studies at The College of Wooster and author of the forthcoming book, The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America, reflects on what the Michael Vick saga (to date) shows us about American attitudes towards crime, punishment, and redemption.

Graber briefly traces the development of public policy and social attitudes towards punishment for violent and heinous crimes. She writes,

In the colonial era, government authorities issued tough criminal sanctions. They branded thieves; they put forgers in the stocks; they hanged murderers and even counterfeiters. The punishments came swiftly and were intended to hurt and to shame. They might deter future criminal activity. But no one expected them to prompt a criminal’s personal reformation.

But things began to change by the time of the American Revolution. At this time, she writes, “Americans encountered a host of new ideas about law, punishment, the body, and individual rights. Some citizens used these notions to call for a dramatic transformation of American criminal punishment.”

So there is a mixed legacy in contemporary attitudes toward punishment and imprisonment, particularly from a Christian perspective which emphasizes the personal transformation that is possible through God’s grace.

In round after round, the reformers claimed that a Christian nation necessarily supported criminal punishments designed first and foremost for reformation. Officials retorted that public safety demanded a realistic approach to corrections, one that used bodily punishments and shame to put unrepentant inmates in their proper place. This endless debate gave us the prisons we have today, institutions caught between simultaneous impulses to punish and redeem.

I survey four different Christian views on these matters in a 2008 law review essay, “To Abolish or to Reform? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice” (PDF). As I show in that piece, “it is more accurate to speak of a plurality of restorative
justice movements than of a unified and univocal restorative justice movement, particularly with respect to the variety of Christian approaches.” As Graber aptly notes, there are a variety of approaches to the relationship between punishment and restoration. Some hold that the two must go together, while other views hold they are antithetical to one another.

One lesson from the Michael Vick case, I believe, is that imprisonment can have a transformative effect, even if that transformation is note the sole, or even one intended, purpose of incarceration. Imprisonment is one way that society makes it clear to someone that particular behaviors are out of bounds and deserving of significant consequences. It puts the indelible stamp of “No!” on someone’s actions.

As for Vick, he’s recently made public his Christian commitment. Reflecting on his conviction and imprisonment at last week’s Super Bowl Prayer Breakfast, “I wanted a chance to redeem myself,” he said. “Pre-incarceration it was all about me. When I got to prison, I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. The one thing I could rely on was my faith in God.”

Vick’s case is only one of the most recent of many such stories of prison redemption. It’s been said before, “Prison saved my life.”

Two of the things I’ve paid some attention to, one more recently and the other as an ongoing area of interest, came together in an Instapundit update yesterday.

Glenn Reynolds linked to a video of a NYC cop who “threatens a man taking cell phone video with arrest.” This picks up the attention given here and here to the question of law enforcement and ‘citizen photojournalism.’

But what really struck me about this story was the threat attributed to the (apparent) cop, who said, “Guys in jail are going to rape you.”

This is beyond the pale in myriad ways. Reynolds points out in an update that “when you have a badge and a gun you should behave better than the average schmuck, rather than having a license to be a jerk.” Public persons, like law enforcement officials, have a higher standard of conduct than private individuals.

But this story also gets at the necessity of prison reform, and the importance of Christian engagement of the criminal justice system.

The term dehumanization gets used often to describe what happens to a victim, particularly of a violent crime. But it’s all often what happens in the realities of the American system of criminal justice.

Simply because people commit crimes, heinous, violent, or otherwise, it does not mean that they cease to be human persons.

No matter what someone has done there are simply things that are not to be done to them, and certainly not within the context of a legally-sanctioned system of justice. This moral reality is what stands behind a good deal of the principled Christian opposition to torture, for instance. And it’s also what lies behind the proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” There are just some things that you don’t do to human beings in any situation or context, merely by virtue of their status as human beings.

The prevalence of prison rape in particular is something that criminals should not be subjected to. Evangelicals have been particularly active on this issue, including groups like the NAE and Justice Fellowship.

Holding criminals accountable is part of what it means to treat them as human beings, as moral agents. But the dignity of human persons, in their victimhood as well as their victimization, also means that there are limits to forms of punishment or to acceptable contexts for incarceration. It also means that imprisonment is not the final word, even in cases of life sentences. Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons.

This has important implications for what prison and imprisonment look like. For instance, in the latest issue of Corrections Today, one of the “top nine” reasons to increase correctional education programs is that “From a humanistic viewpoint, education is the right thing to do.” The brief article (PDF) cites a UN statement:

Education should be aimed at the full development of the whole person requiring prisoner access to formal and informal education, literacy programs, basic education, vocational training, creative, religious and cultural activities, physical
education and sport, social education, higher education and library facilities.

(Thanks to Dr. John Teevan, director of Grace College’s Prison Extension Program for pointing out that article).

My own view is that the broad realm of criminal justice, including various accounts of restorative justice and the relationship of Christians, both organically and institutionally, to the government system of punishment is especially ripe for fruitful engagement. And the issue of prison rape is a concrete instance of where Christian activism is of utmost importance.

Last week Rick Warren’s church hosted the fourth Saddleback Civil Forum. This time the forum focused on reconciliation, particularly on the roles of the church and the government in promoting and fostering reconciliation after crime and conflict.

The forum included special guests Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, and Miroslav Volf, a prominent theologian and native of Croatia.

One of the things that typically happens in the course of tyranny and genocide is that the church’s social witness is either sidelined and marginalized or simply subsumed under governmental control. President Kagame said that during the Rwandan genocide, the government and the church “were almost one and the same.” This severely hampered the church’s ability to act as a critical and mediating institution between the government and its individual citizens.

We featured the book, As We Forgive, on a past series of posts here on the PowerBlog when we asked, “What social conditions promote reconciliation?” This book is a powerful exploration of concrete cases of restorative justice at work in Rwanda after the genocide.

In a guest post on the PowerBlog, author Catherine Claire Larson described the essential role that economic institutions play in reconciliation. In describing ministries that work to promote micro-finance, Larson writes that “by creating economic opportunities where interdependence is vital, they are really creating ideal environments for reconciliation and restoration.”

The inspiration for Larson’s book, a documentary film of the same name, premiered on PBS earlier this year.

I also explored different Christian views of the government’s role in promoting restorative justice in a law review essay, “To Reform or to Abolish? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice” (PDF).

That the government has some positive role to play in promoting restorative justice rings true in a number of concrete cases. Of course the state must respect the vital role that other institutions, like the church, must play. But sometimes punishment can be a means toward restoration.

Chef Jeff, a prominent personality on the Food Network, was in Grand Rapids earlier this year to discuss how his time in prison gave him the opportunity to reflect on his life and make positive changes to promote social well-being.

“In prison, it was the first time in my life I ever read a book. The first time in my life that someone told me that I was smart. The first time someone told me I had potential,” he said.

As Chef Jeff puts it, “Prison saved my life.”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
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main-book1Catherine Claire Larson’s book As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda is an exploration of forgiveness and reconciliation in the years following the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Fifteen years ago this month, a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down on a return trip from Tanzania, sparking widespread ethnic violence across the country. By the time the civil war was declared over on July 18, 1994, between 800,000 and 1 million Rwandans had been killed.

As We Forgive tells the tale of the war through the lives of seven survivors of the genocide. “Rwanda’s wounds,” writes Larson, “are agonizingly deep. Today, they are being opened afresh as tens of thousands of killers are released from prison to return to the hills where they hunted down and killed former neighbors, friends, and classmates.” Larson’s book is a study in the personal experiences of both the perpetrators and the victims who are seeking some way to live together after such a troubled past.

Through these individual stories Larson places the reader in the recent history of Rwandan society. She writes, “One of the most haunting things about living in Rwanda after the genocide is that killers still walk among survivors.” After the commission of such unspeakable evil, how can a society survive and prosper?

The need for forgiveness is deeply personal. Many of the killers have come to regret their actions, whether soon after the deeds were done or only after years of imprisonment and reflection. But in order for reconciliation to be achieved, both the offender and the victim must seek it. A traditional system of retributive justice, in which the evil committed is simply countered by punishment, lacks many of the tools necessary to bring both parties together.

In this sense As We Forgive is a book about the practice of a different form of justice. “Restorative justice,” writes Larson, “is a process in which victim, offender, and community are involved in dialogue, mutual agreement, empathy, and the taking of responsibility. In contrast to retributive justice, restorative justice focuses on balancing harm done by the offender with making things right to the victim, and on restoring human flourishing.”

But the important thing to note is that restorative justice is not simply about changing the institutional application of criminal justice. Many of the most critical aspects of processes of restorative justice are not achieved by courts, prisons, or police. Indeed, as Larson writes, “there are ways to infuse restorative elements into already established systems or to offer such programs on a voluntary community-wide level.” Larson explores the establishment of these systems and their influence in the lives of Rwanda’s victims, especially from a perspective that emphasizes the Christian doctrine of forgiveness.

Many of the most effective organizations working toward reconciliation in Rwanda do so out of specifically Christian convictions about the nature of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. The title of the book is taken from the petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:12).

One particular case in which this aspect of the book comes through is in the story of Claude. He was a thirteen year-old boy in 1994, when a grenade woke him from sleep and tore his world apart. Years after the end of the genocide, Claude held on hatred and lust for vengeance against those who had mutilated, hunted, and killed his family. Even while he was in school, Claude joined a group called the Survivors Club, which was intended to bring students together to share stories of their survival. But for Claude, “These tales only fanned the embers of something that had begun to burn deep within him and haunt his waking and his sleeping: revenge.”

It wasn’t until Claude became part of a different group, called Solace, that his perspective began to be transformed. “Like the Survivors Club at his school, this was a gathering of Tutsi who had managed to survive the genocide,” writes Larson. “The people who gathered were mainly divided into two groups: widows and orphans. But unlike the Survivors Club, this group sought consolation not simply from each other, but from God. Claude found that this wasn’t like being a member of an organization or society. Solace was like family to him.”

Interspersed between the seven stories of reconciliation in Rwanda are short reflective chapters that apply the moral and spiritual lessons to a North American context. Each one of us knows what it is like both to be wronged and to commit wrong against another. And therefore each one of us knows what it is like to need to forgive or to need forgiveness. While many of the wrongs we experience pale in comparison to the grisly crimes committed in those 100 days of horror fifteen years ago, these exceptional evils prove the necessity of overcoming even seemingly more banal and daily sins.

As We Forgive is a must-read for anyone interested in the recent history of Rwanda, the practice of restorative justice, or the Christian understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation.

This review has been cross-posted at Blogcritics.org.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, August 8, 2008
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On an episode of NPR’s Talk of the Nation last month, professor Jay Parini of Middlebury College discussed his role in the criminal justice sentences given to students who were involved in the vandalism of the former summer home of renowned poet Robert Frost.

Some of the younger students involved took part in a class on Robert Frost as part of an alternative sentencing plea agreement. As Prof. Parini says, “It’s a sort of unique punishment, talk about the punishment fitting the crime.”

Be sure to listen to the show to get the details of the whole story. This sounds to me like a perfect example of jurisprudence, that is, wisdom in the application of law. By connecting the offenders to the reality of Robert Frost’s life and work, the real impact of what they had done was communicated to them.

The potential for alternative sentencing agreements like this is just one of the possibilities I discuss in a newly published essay, “To Reform or to Abolish? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice,” Ave Maria Law Review 6, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 481-511. In that piece I lay out a basic scheme for understanding the different Christian approaches to restorative justice, particularly with regard to the relationship between punishment and restoration, along with some of the theological and practical implications for these various streams.

“It seems obvious that from a perspective of personalism,” I write, “relevant contextual differences should be considered in sentencing, and judges should have the ability to exercise prudential judgments on such matters.”

The case of the Frost house vandals underscores the value of this perspective, contrasted with that which emphasizes strictly controlled mandatory sentencing, especially for minors and youths. As Parini also says, “Poetry is about reparation and restoration.” The task for the prudential administration of justice is to balance and coordinate the necessity of punishment as an end in itself and as an instrument oriented toward reconciliation.

As an aside, I might also note that Prof. Parini would do his regular college students better service to teach them as he taught the offenders. Talking about his treatment of the Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken.” “When I teach the class to my students at Middlebury, it’s a you know sophisticated group, I do a fairly post-modern reading of the poem…. In a post-modern reading of that poem it’s more complicated.”

But in teaching the class of offenders Parini emphasized the recognition of metaphoric and symbolic values as a necessary part of coming to grips with the realities and responsibilities of life: “I realized these kids are at a very simple level here and Frost is confronting one of the issues that we have moral choices breaking in front of us at every moment.” This latter approach does more justice, so to speak, to the duties of the moral imagination than the sophistry of a post-modern reading, in which there is really no “wrong” road to take.

The theme of this issue of the Ave Maria Law Review is “The Constitutionality of Faith-Based Prison Units,” and there are some valuable resources for coming to grips with a practical dilemma facing the relationship between church and state in America. Another noteworthy and timely essay in this issue is Edward E. Ericson Jr.’s “The Enduring Achievement of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.”

Last Saturday a brief op-ed commentary of mine ran in the weekly Religion section of the Grand Rapids Press, “Chandler case exemplifies need to repent.”

The occasion for the piece was the sentencing over the last few months of those convicted of involvement in the rape and murder of Janet Chandler in 1979 (more details about the case can be found in the Holland Sentinel’s special coverage section.) Chandler was a student at Holland’s Hope College at the time of her death. (Here are two of the stories that form the background for my article’s argument: “Swank: ‘No excuse’ for role in Chandler death” and “Lives built on dark secret crumble.”)

In the op-ed I make the claim that the work of the criminal justice system in the conviction and sentencing of those involved provides a necessary context within which forgiveness, or more precisely a form of restorative justice, might be sought. “For criminals who are in denial about what they have done, the power of the state to punish crime stands as public and objective testimony to the wrong that has been committed,” I write.

Swank: “No excuse…” (Sentinel/Dan Irving)

That’s exactly what has happened in this case. Earlier in December four men were sentenced to life in prison in connection with Chandler’s murder. After the four men were sentenced, Janet’s father Jim said, “As a Christian, I thought of saying we should forgive, but you have to ask for forgiveness. None of these arrogant people ever felt remorse or asked for forgiveness.”

Jim Chandler touches here on the critical difference between a forgiveness that is merely offered, and forgiveness that is sought out and received. Forgiveness that is merely offered is described as the “weak” form of forgiveness by Victor Claar, a professor at Hope College, and John N. Oswalt, a professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Miss., in an article appearing in the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Can Neoclassical Economics Handle a Scriptural View of Forgiveness?”

Claar and Oswalt also describe the “strong” form of forgiveness: “This strong form follows the biblical view that forgiveness cannot be granted unless the victimizer has repented. Apology is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the strong form of forgiveness. Further, only the strong form holds the possibility of reconciliation. There can be no reconciliation without apology.”

Much of the reflection that lies behind the GR Press article is the fruit of the study behind a piece on restorative justice and the Christian tradition that is due to appear in an issue of next year’s Ave Maria Law Review. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how so-called “retributive” justice and “restorative” justice relate.

One way of putting the question is to inquire as to how to put together the instructions in Romans 12, such as, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath,” and Romans 13, including the statements referring to the civil magistrate, “He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

For more on how restorative justice can work within the context of the criminal justice system, see this story about the work of Celebrate Recovery, a prison ministry at work in Michigan and around the country, “Pastors baptize 33 at St. Joseph County Jail” (HT).

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in post-apartheid South Africa has been hailed as the standard for working for restorative justice in the contemporary world.

One of the misunderstandings surrounding the work of the commission, however, involves the relationship between the forgiveness, reconciliation, and amnesty offered by the commission in relation to the coercive power of the state.

David Schmidtz, in his recent book Elements of Justice, writes,

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission set out in 1995 to document human rights abuses between 1960 and 1994. Part of its mandate is to grant amnesty to those who cooperate in documenting relevant facts. Now, these crimes were not ancient. It was not a situation where innocent people were being asked to pay for crimes of their ancestors. Many of apartheid’s perpetrators were very much alive, and by no means beyond the reach of the law. Yet, even so, Mandela’s goal (like Desmond Tutu’s) was reconciliation, not revenge. He wanted to prevent the legacy of apartheid from continuing to hang over future generations (214).

It is important to note that the cooperation of many these witnesses was accomplished by means of the threat of punitive action. The offer of amnesty was a carrot only in relation to the overarching threat of the stick.

Where the carrot wasn’t taken, the stick must still be used. And so we find that some South African apartheid-era officials who did not cooperate with the commission are now being charged with crimes.

These officials “will be tried for a 1989 attack on the Rev. Frank Chikane, who, at the time, was the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, an organization at the forefront of the struggle against minority white rule.”

This news is noteworthy for two reasons. First, “This is the first case of the prosecution of apartheid-era atrocities in which alleged perpetrators were denied or did not seek amnesty from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, retired archbishop Desmond Tutu.”

And second, it shows just how dependent on the threat of force the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission really is. This is why Christopher D. Marshall, in his work Beyond Retribution, notes that the TRC occupies a mediating position between the proceedings of war crimes tribunals like Nuremberg and complete offers of amnesty among some Latin American nations.

It’s my hope to explore the theoretical connections between reconciliation and punishment in a paper on restorative justice that I’m currently researching.