RESTORATIVE JUSTICE: Second Chances in an Unforgiving Society
By Rev. David Thompson
Rev. David Thompson is a retired Elder in the North Central Conference of the Free Methodist Church, a retired U.S. Navy Chaplain and mental health counselor, and former Superintendent of the former Minn-I-Kota Conference. One of his sons is one of the 70 million Americans with a record, for a decade-old misdemeanor that has been a barrier for meaningful employment, housing and credit for the past eight years. Only recently was he offered, as a veteran who served seven years on active duty, a second chance in employment with a good job with the VA to help other veterans like himself, get on their feet after suffering wounds of mind, body, and spirit in war- time service.
Supt. Thompson presents an important and profound call on all of us as compassionate Christians who ourselves live by God’s restorative mercy.
Anytime one starts talking about restorative justice in a world where revenge and punishment are often the normal response for offenses against persons and society, it is to venture into controversial waters.
I am deeply sensitive to the pain and grief that is visited upon victims of crime and the challenge to forgive, feel safe, and rebuild trust that has been lost. This is no small task of mind and spirit requiring sometimes years of counsel and support from friends and caring clinicians. It takes a real touch from the Lord to help many move on in life after such a trauma and not remain captured by fear and anger. Efforts at outreach and support for victims of violence should be a top priority in any efforts of criminal justice reform.
Also, with a son serving in law enforcement, I recognize the service of law enforcement officers to protect and serve us in bringing to justice those who have violated our laws, especially criminals who have committed violent acts against other persons. There just are offenders that need to remain incarcerated who have not been sufficiently rehabilitated to be safely released into society, while others are prepared to re-join society but often are not allowed to or are poorly assisted or mentored in this transition to have a positive outcome.
These preliminary thoughts bring me to the topic of restorative justice, for church leaders to reflect upon in the coming days.
Several experiences shaped my views in this essay that convinced me that investing in restorative justice and rehabilitation is the only way to redeem acts that caused significant pain and disruption in our world. Only God’s grace and forgiveness can set captives free from a cycle of revenge and recrimination that sours the soul and perpetuates further violence and bitterness in our world.
I observed, working as a counselor in a state maximum security prison that primarily focused on punishment, not rehabilitation, which only led to angrier prisoners and more dangerous inmates, was not a wise choice of how to spend time and money that only created repeat offenders. These inmates upon release from prison, had few new skills to prepare them for a new life relationally or vocationally, which quickly led them to recidivise back into a life of crime.
Later in life, while serving as a military chaplain and then as a mental health counselor, working with returning veterans who were offenders in the criminal justice system for minor, yet often life wrecking acts, gave me great concern as to what we are doing with these veterans, who often suffer from PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, and addictions to deal with the pain of wartime wounds to the body, mind and spirit. Locking them up didn’t seem to be the right answer after years of service to our country.
Retributive or Restorative Justice: A Clash of Cultures
As the fall television season begins, TV programing is filled again with stories focused on the criminal justice system, whether it is the standard fare of dramas of criminals being chased by police, lawyers
arguing cases to put “bad guys away,” or reality TV shows like “Lock Up” taking the viewer into prisons to see prisoners punished. It is quite shocking how much of our viewing diet involves watching authorities catch, bring to trial and punish people in a retributive justice system with few second chances. Rare is the story of redemption, forgiveness and grace filling our hearts and minds as we see a story of restorative justice played out on our TV screens.
Instead, we find ourselves awash in entertainment programing focused on retribution and punishment of others that gives us a strange sense of satisfaction. We hear national political leaders speaking of never asking for forgiveness (or giving it) and retaliating against those who offend them. The tabloids scream at us from grocery newsstands of the sins of others, in hopes we will feel better about our lives and take small comfort in the fact that our secret sins are not being shouted from the housetops or filling social media for all to see.
Then we go to church on Sunday and experience spiritual whiplash from a different “other -worldly” world order, where we sing songs like Amazing Grace about forgiveness and the grace of God in our hymnody and choruses. We often utter the Lord’s prayer in worship, affirming that the forgiveness of our sins is contingent on forgiving others, with the phrase: “Forgive us our trespasses (debts) as we forgive those who trespass against us (or who are our debtors).”
We hear the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, who wanted God to punish the Ninevites for their sins while God wanted to save them and redeem them from destruction… and how it took being swallowed by a great fish for Jonah to have an attitude adjustment that aligned his heart with the redemptive spirit of the Lord.
We also hear the teaching on forgiveness in Matt 18: 21-35 and God’s judgement upon a man who was forgiven much, who then turns on someone who owes him a little and punishes him severely.
We are told in Matt 25 to visit those in prison (when is the last time most of our church members have done that…if ever?) as a sign of being a serious Christian disciple; as having done this “for the least of these brothers of mine, you did this for me.”
We acknowledge in our worship and in our theology that we are all sinners saved only by the grace of God. We marvel at Jesus teaching on revenge where he tells us to turn the other cheek if struck rather than retaliate as part of kingdom ethics (which without God’s help is a hard teaching to practice).
And then on Monday morning we step back into a world focused on retribution and revenge in a nation that leads the world in incarceration of its citizens; with 5% of the world’s population incarcerating 25% of the worlds prisoners… approximately 2.2 million people (see APA article entitled “Incarceration Nation”), forcing us to either believe we are the most evil people in the world or something is really wrong here with our criminal justice system and our unforgiving hearts.
Peter Wagner and Wendy Sawyer in a June 2018 article “States of Incarceration: The Global Context” starkly illustrate world incarceration rates many states, as well as the United States far exceeding incarceration rates of all other countries (see here).
The Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocate for criminal justice reform posted the following on its website (see here).
Over 4 decades our incarceration rates quadrupled since 1972, an increase of 1.9 million from that date to the 2.2 million incarcerated today
On any given day, some 7 million people – about one in every 31 people – are under the supervision of the corrections system, either locked up or probation or parole.
This vast expansion of the corrections system – which has been called “the New Jim Crow” – is the direct result of a failed, decades-long drug war and a “law and order” movement that began amid the urban unrest of the late 1960s, just after the civil rights era.
It’s a system marred by vast racial disparities – one that stigmatizes and targets young black men for arrest at a young age, unfairly punishes communities of color, burdens taxpayers and exacts a tremendous social cost. Today, African-American men who failed to finish high school are more likely to be behind bars than employed.
High school dropouts most likely fall into the criminal justice system. “Of all of the males in federal and state prisons, 80 percent do not have a high school diploma.
There is a direct correlation with a lack of high school education and incarceration. One in ten male dropouts between the ages of 16 to 24 are either in prison or in juvenile detention. According to a report by The Hamilton Project, there is nearly a 70 percent chance that an African-American man without his high school diploma will be imprisoned by his mid-thirties.
There is a 16% unemployment rate for African-Americans without a high school diploma, showing that men in this demographic have about the same chance of being incarcerated than being employed” (see here).
We are living in a country which focuses on punishment of offenders. We also, as a result, have an abysmal record of recidivism, with 68% returning to prison within three years; while Norway, focusing on rehabilitation and redemption, has a 20% recidivism rate (see here).
It could not be clearer: Revenge is expensive and largely does not work. If a company had a 7 out of 10 failure rate on its products or services, like our “corrections systems,” someone in leadership would get fired and the organization would be seriously reorganized for better outcomes. Yet in many US prisons, nothing of the sort happens…only a push for more prisons (private or otherwise) and with it pressure throughout the justice system to maintain high occupancy rates, like a hotel chain, to fund an $80 Billion business per year.
Daryl Atkinson, wrote the following in a February 27, 2018 article entitled “A Revolution of Values in the US Criminal Justice System” (see here): “There are more than 70 million Americans living with a criminal record (nearly 25% of our adult population). The rise in incarceration rates has not affected all communities equally. Blacks and Latinos collectively represent around 30 percent of the general population, but account for nearly 60 percent of the prison population.”
For black men, the incarceration rate is more than six times higher than it is for white men and more than two and a half times higher than it is for Hispanic men. The cumulative consequences of mass incarceration for communities of color—many of which lose significant numbers of working-age men and women to the criminal justice system—include the creation of geographic pockets of concentrated poverty, intergenerational structural disadvantages, and burgeoning racial inequality.
Mass incarceration has significant societal costs not only in human terms but also in dollars and cents. Every year, the United States spends more than $80 billion on local jails and state and federal prisons. Correctional costs place an enormous burden on state budgets, directly impacting states’ ability to fund vital community programs and fueling a vicious cycle of community disinvestment.”
Community Sanctioned Collateral Punishment
To make matters worse, after a person has paid their court mandated debt to society our culture adds additional extra-legal punishment on former offenders with community sanctioned collateral punishment that discriminates against them in employment, credit and housing opportunities for life…an unpardonable sin never to be forgiven in a lifetime. This reality impacts over 70 million Americans, nearly 25% of the US adult population who suffer from retributive justice meted out by employers, banks, rental housing managers…1 in 4 of my neighbors…some who may silently sit in our churches with this burden fearing the judgement of others…or who may be absent from our congregations sensing “no redemption here,” rather than grace and forgiveness and second chances within the walls of our sanctuaries.
A 2015 article by Ruben Rosario in the St. Paul Pioneer Press entitled “Criminal Past Blocks Return to Productive Life,” highlights this ethical problem for Christians looking at the lack of forgiveness in our society that is aided by our information systems designed to control and discriminate against 25% (1.25 Million) of Minnesota citizens with criminal records (see here). Former Minnesota Governor Al Quie, an outspoken Christian now affiliated with Prison Fellowship Ministries, further heightened my awareness to a serious job barrier for close to 70 million working Americans having a criminal record of some offense in their past (see here).
Discrimination in Voting Rights
Having felony criminal record disenfranchises many from voting, one of the significant ways a person participates as an adult citizen in society. It has become one of the primary means of voter suppression in our country to leave ex-felons without a voice in our society after serving their time under correctional supervision. It has become a significant tool to discriminate against and disempower black and brown citizens in America.
In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (see here), legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes that many of the gains of the civil rights movement have been undermined by the mass incarceration of black Americans in the war on drugs. She says that although Jim Crow laws are now off the books, millions of blacks arrested for minor crimes remain marginalized and disfranchised, trapped by a criminal justice system that has forever branded them as felons and denied them basic rights and opportunities that would allow them to become productive, law-abiding citizens.
“People are swept into the criminal justice system — particularly in poor communities of color — at very early ages … typically for fairly minor, nonviolent crimes. The young black males are shuttled into prisons, branded as criminals and felons, and then when they’re released, they’re relegated to a permanent second-class status, stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement — like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free of legal discrimination and employment, and access to education and public benefits. Many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind during the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again, once you’ve been branded a felon.
Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. There are millions of African- Americans now cycling in and out of prisons and jails or under correctional control.
In major American cities today, more than half of working-age African-American men are either under correctional control or branded felons and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”
The Marshall Project website underlines the impact of felony convictions on ex-offenders (see here):
According to the Sentencing Project, more than 6 million Americans cannot vote due to unprecedented mass incarceration and a patchwork of laws in 48 of the 50 states. Increasingly, debates over the practice of conditioning voting rights on criminal record reference the laws’ historically racist motivations.
Felony disenfranchisement has an undeniable racial present, not just past. Black Americans constitute 2.2 million of the disenfranchised, banned from voting at four times the rate of all other racial groups combined. Its history betrays a truth the nation has continuously refused to recognize in the experience of its most intimately reviled child: enslaved Africans and their descendants.
This calls for a real change of heart in society (and in the church) from retributive justice to restorative justice. The use of information systems to identify and discriminate against those who have publicly sinned and paid their debt to society by further community sanctioned collateral punishment for life against these persons just does not square with scripture.
For those of us who have never had a scrape with the law we often have little empathy for those who have had this experience. Even a minor scrape with the law in the information age with the use of the information gained by such a system for discrimination in employment, housing and credit would be a shock to many of us. It doesn’t take much of an incident to find yourself being sucked into the voracious appetite of a system looking for “customers,” which has a $80 Billion a year appetite business…a growth industry, while crime rates are falling (see here).
There is a dark side to our information systems that has already played out before our eyes in the way we have monitored and discriminated against those who have a past criminal record and have paid their
debt to society. These data gathering systems have continued to be used to mine public records to assist many to deliver community sanctioned collateral punishment to these people who long have paid their debt to society.
For Christians let us be clear, there is no grace here…and if we are part of that system as an employer, landlord or credit institution, we share in these grace-less non-Christian actions. Much of this information should not even be out there anyway…only a few people really have a need to know (police and judicial officers…not every Tom, Dick & Harry doing a computer record search on our neighbor’s past).
Our craving for information on the sins of our neighbors is a real problem, enabling us, in good tabloid fashion, to feel good about ourselves reading about the failings of others, like a Pharisee who says, “I have no sin in my life” Maybe we all should have our laundry aired to the world for all to see, not just our good moments, but moments that we plead for grace and mercy. Jesus tells us to offer this grace to others as men and women forgiven ourselves, who now offers it to others.
So, what can we do about all of this?
First, change our attitudes. Recognize many of us have been captured by the spirit of an age where retribution and lack of forgiveness permeates the media and many human relationships today. This spirit is not the spirit of Jesus, who is our Lord and Savior, who has forgiven us all of our sins and requires us to likewise forgive those indebted to us. So, we must have an attitude change and listen to the voice of Jesus by following His guidance in how to act graciously and lovingly in a world already filled with so much hate and revenge.
Second, take action. Corporately become “a second chance church” with a message of redemption and hope to those who have made mistakes in life and need a new start in life.
If 1 in 4 of our neighbors are craving for a second chance at life (or is a family member of such a person), what a great opportunity we have to share the gospel of redemption and concretely help a sinner find his/her place in a fellowship of sinners…saved by grace. What a huge opportunity for outreach and evangelism that is right at our doorstep, surrounded by neighbors needing a second chance in life. Also, get engaged as a church in bi-partisan efforts to politically support and legislatively work for second chance initiatives in our communities, state and nation.
Individually, if you are a hiring, housing, or credit manager, judiciously consider giving offenders, especially non-violent offenders, a second chance at a job, credit or housing to get on their feet again after paying their debt to society.
Get creative in meeting and helping those needing a second chance: Join or support as a church or individual Prison Fellowship Ministries (see here:), find a way to visit those in federal and state prisons and over 11- million people a year awaiting trial in 3,000 country jails across our country (contact prison chaplains for ways to serve), volunteer to mentor those seeking to start a new life via Veterans Treatment Courts, which are always looking for this kind of help for offending veterans (see here and here) , as well as other local community outreach programs like those of the Second Chance Ministries in Gillette, WY (see here:). It will take a little work to research service opportunities and then network to make them happen, but it will be well worth the effort… doing this necessary work as unto the Lord.
Third, pray! Pray for the over 2.2 million in prison and their families (some 2.7 million children living in foster care systems without a dad or mom who are incarcerated), over 450,000 who incarcerated due to drug offenses, and the 12,000 released every week back into our communities facing daunting obstacles to get a second chance of decent employment, housing and credit.
It often takes 7-10 years of a clean record to mitigate against a decade old offense, while struggling with unemployment or at best poor paying interim survival jobs and dealing with the threat of homelessness with the help of friends and family. Find someone you can personally pray for or to assist their family as they deal with this challenge in life. Then be the answer to the prayers of those imprisoned or recently released to concretely help them find a second chance at life and be a redemptive and restorative influence in their lives.
John Newton, two centuries ago wrote the famous song, “Amazing Grace” that is sung an estimated 10 million times a year in American churches, with church members lustily singing the refrain, “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
You see, Newton believed he was a sinner who could only be redeemed (moment by moment) by God’s grace. In an article on Newton’s life in Christianity Today, he (Newton) describes his life of “living with moral abandon: “I sinned with a high hand,” he later wrote, “and I made it my study to tempt and seduce others” (see here).
Newton had taken up employment serving on slave ships working for a slave-trader and practicing this evil and murderous trade that involved kidnapping people in Africa and selling them as slaves, in an era when this was “acceptable” (not criminal behavior), which today would make him a serious criminal like the head of a drug cartel or member of a mafia family. Then, in a shipwreck experience on one of his slave ships he cried out to God to save him, which was a turning point in his life. It led to his conversion, the forsaking of the sinful salve trade, and living a life of repentance for his past wrongdoing, dedicating the rest of his life to stopping the evil slave trade.
Unfortunately, most of us really don’t see ourselves anymore as sinners (wretches) desperately in need of forgiveness and grace, like the 70 million Americans who were former offenders needing a second chance.
Few of us say, “but for the grace of God and circumstances of life, I could easily have been counted among them.” Instead we often pray as the Pharisee in Luke 18: 10-14: “Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week; I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you; this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.”
The point in all of this is to say and sing anew, like Newton, that “we are all sinners” in need of God’s grace and forgiveness on a daily basis. There is no “us” and “them” here…we all have fallen short of the glory of God and are in need of redemption and a second chance. It is for us…all of “us” that Jesus died, so that we may through the power of the Holy Spirit make a new life for ourselves and extend that grace and forgiveness to others who trespass against us, as we in turn have been forgiven of our sins. The Bible is very clear about this…and we have our marching orders… forgive as you have been forgiven. Give those who have fallen a second chance, just as we have been given by God.
Don’t be caught at the end of the age saying, as recorded in Matt 25: 44-45: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you? And then to hear, “whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me.”
But now we can see clearly! We are called by the Lord himself to action; to offer grace and hope to those seeking redemption and new beginnings, just as Jesus has done for us. Doing this for the least of these, you are doing this as unto the Lord.