As a nation, let's find 'the courage to stand up' and protect our children

By Mark Pattison

(CNS) — Restorative justice should be advocated as a key element in criminal
justice reform, according to participants at an April 25 conference in Washington
sponsored by the Catholic Mobilizing Network, which champions restorative
justice as well as an end to the death penalty.

looking at the numbers, recidivism rates for adults are between 65 and 70
percent, according to Tim Wolfe, a sociology and criminal justice professor at
Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

on the nature of the restorative justice program, this can be cut in half, and
can be even lower,” Wolfe said.

He quoted
Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, who runs Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles for former
gang members. Father Boyle had said, “A job may keep a kid from going back to
prison, but a heal — he’ll never go back to prison again.” Wolfe said the
priest was alluding to the pain many in prison or facing jail time have felt
since childhood due to abuse and a lack of love. They committed crimes to try
and erase that pain or to feel a sense of belonging.

is smart money,” Wolfe said during the conference, held at The Catholic
University of America, Washington, one of the conference’s sponsors. “These are
effective programs.”

Schieber, whose daughter was murdered by a serial rapist 20 years ago, said
that her initial instinct upon hearing of her daughter’s slaying, despite a
family steeped in the Catholic faith, was, “I wanna kill him.” Eventually, she
and her husband determined that capital punishment for the criminal was “not
what she would have wanted,” and sought to spare his life once the man was charged.

the Schiebers were not permitted to meet their daughter’s murderer, they
received a letter eight years after the crime in which he wrote, “I am so sorry
that I did this to your family.” The Schiebers also corresponded with his
mother, who wrote about ignoring her children’s pleas for them to leave her abusive
husband: “Daddy’s being mean.” The woman, who died last year, said she should
have listened to her children. “I am,” she wrote the Schiebers, “the one who
murdered your daughter.”

church’s teaching on restorative justice is the best-kept secret of the best-kept
secret,” which many identify as Catholic social teaching, said Msgr. Stuart Swetland,
president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Missouri, and a Catholic
television and radio program host.

lamented that the 1994 Get Tough on Crime Act banned the use of federal Pell
grants to inmates to advance their education. Donnelly College established its
own education-in-prison curriculum in which 420 inmates have taken courses, and
23 have earned degrees. Only four prisoner-students have returned to jail after
having committed new crimes after their release.

“It’s a
drop in the bucket. It’s one program in one place. But it works,” Msgr.
Swetland said.

Getek Soltis, an assistant professor of Christian ethics at Villanova
University in Philadelphia and director of the school’s Center for Peace and
Justice Education, voiced her hope that one day justice itself will be defined
as restorative justice.

said society should own up to its “complicity in allowing people who have committed
offenses to be people we are allowed to hate.”

providing education, work or living wages “are crimes, too,” Soltis said, “but
we just don’t have any words for it.” Instead, “we cause the system to demonize
people that we don’t want to consider part of ‘us’ … and we’ve created an
economic system to keep this going.”

Father George Williams, a Catholic chaplain at San Quentin since 2011, said: “Ninety-five percent of the people I work with in prison are addicts today or in there because
of drugs.”

He agreed
with Soltis’ point about the economics of incarceration. “There are very few,
less than 5 percent,” who can’t ever be let out of prison, he said. Moreover, Father
Williams added, “prison doesn’t have to be a hellish experience,” although the
environment behind bars “depends on what level of cruelty we’re willing to

efforts on criminal justice reform, say members of both parties, “depend on a bipartisan
consensus,” even if one can’t be achieved at the moment, said Michael O’Rourke,
a policy adviser for the U.S. bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development.

reform is one key aspect of bills awaiting action, O’Rourke said, although restorative
justice doesn’t seem to be included in them.

action is in the states, he added, as the majority of people in prisons are
there for state and not federal offenses. The cost of housing prisoners and the
increasing costs of tending to an aging prisoner population are causing lawmakers
to tweak state policy.

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