by Foster J. Pinkney
If Restorative Justice is, as Professor Chris Marshall of New Zealand writes in the introduction to his work Compassionate Justice, “a way of responding to criminal offending that concentrates on relational, emotional, and material repair more than on conviction and punishment,” then we have to wonder about the future of movement in America. When systems of mass incarceration are so tied to commercial interests and political gain, it can be difficult to conceive of a place for justice which privileges humanity above statistics. At the Consultation on Restorative Justice and Youth Incarceration, held at Fordham University at Lincoln Center on November 18, 2013, experts and activists converged to discuss the future of restorative justice.
Union was a co-host of this conference which was conceived of by President Emeritus Donald Shriver and his wife, author and former executive secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ of the United States, Peggy Shriver. On a trip across the world, the Shrivers learned about how restorative justice has worked in New Zealand, where principles from the indigenous Maori population have been applied to the state justice system. New Zealand faced a crisis of overwhelming incarceration of the indigenous peoples and turned to Maori culture itself for a remedy, which turned out to be a form of restorative justice. It has been popular, not least among crime victims, most of whom report increased satisfaction with the restorative system. The conference brought experts from Ireland and Norway as well as New Zealand and other crime-ridden American communities such as Baltimore.
Advocates of Restorative Justice say that it is not a move towards leniency, but towards compassion, an idea that can serve as the base of resistance against oppression as well as a deeper exploration of the harm caused by crime. The hope is that conversations held around Restorative Justice generate practical ideas leading to a more humane understanding of criminality which will ultimately result in less harm overall.
I spoke with Christopher Jones (’13), Program Coordinator of the SAGE Harlem Center and member of the planning committee for the event held at Fordham University, concerning the connections between restoration, justice, and, finally, forgiveness.
What was your initial interest in Restorative Justice and Youth Incarceration?
Honestly, I only heard a little about Restorative Justice over the last few years. I had developed an interest, personally, while doing mediation work. As a chaplain, I seek to do work that offers tangible change and later found out more about this concept of Restorative Justice. However, I did not become actively engaged in the conversation of Restorative Justice until joining the consultation project with President Emeritus of Union, Donald Shriver, and his wife, Peggy.
What place can Restorative Justice have in our current legal system?
I think restorative justice is a concept that can benefit all persons, particularly those who have been affected by the mass incarceration or have been a victim of crime. I even think there is opportunity to explore Restorative Justice work with persons who have experienced the brunt of any sort of oppression. The two key words of the whole concept are important to grasp if one is interested in this work: “Restore” and “Just.”
I think everyone wants to experience justice whether it is around a personal matter or mediating some sort of offense. When it comes to restoration, who does not want to be “restored” from a sense of loss? This is especially true for persons affected by one of the major issues of our time, which is the problem of the mass industrial prison complex. There are so many people who desire restoration and a fixed or concrete sense of justice. And, the idea of restoration and justice working together is ripe for a myriad of public and private sectors.
Have you already applied Restorative Justice in your chaplaincy work?
It is something that I think about a lot these days. I question all the time: How can I use this idea of Restorative Justice in a pastoral context and how can it be included within my work around LGBT issues or my work around HIV and AIDS? When considering the desire for restoration and justice, we’re talking about queer persons and or LGBT folks who have been estranged from their families and various communities because of their sexual orientation and or gender identification. There is a need for research and scholarship in this area. People within the LGBT community have been on the receiving end of some very violent religious ideologies and personal beliefs that are not righteous and just. Moreover, many people within the LGBT community, as well as persons affected by HIV/AIDS, are touched by the mass industrial prison complex at some point in their life. When doing Restorative Justice work inside or outside prisons, one is bound to encounter LGBT folks and or persons affected by HIV and AIDS. This means the work could benefit from a certain level of cultural sensitivity and competency.
It seems like the legal system, or maybe just American culture, gives up on kids. They are not really interested in restoring these children. How do you convince those outside of a religious context that people are worth restoring?
There is a contingency of people who do not believe in this idea of Restorative Justice. Some of these people are victims of crimes. They are people in a mental and or emotional state that renders them unable, and often unwilling, to reconcile with their offenders. The resistance to Restorative Justice highlights the fact that there are questions of morality and personal ethic at stake. It is not easy to address. As more people commit to this conversation and do the work, the movement has the potential to spread like other faith-based systems. In order for it to be most effective, the work has to be done at such a level that creates a power of influence and persuasion. People have to be convinced of the benefit and value of the work.
This is in part why some people give up on the youth. It is a hard area to contend with at times. It is hard because some people are not convinced there is a possibility for immediate change and impact within this restorative work. Therefore, it makes it difficult for others to get onboard. However, something has to be done. We cannot just give up on our youth and throw them away.
Do you think forgiveness is the same thing as Restorative Justice? Do you think that forgiveness is absolutely necessary for the process?
Yes. I had this exact conversation with New Zealander Christopher Marshall, who focuses his work on Restorative Justice as a Biblical scholar. Forgiveness is at the core of Restorative Justice and it is a concept endeared as secular and sacred. This essentially means that it is a concept everyday people wrestle with as much as folks within faith community, who often theologize the idea of forgiving.
Much of Restorative Justice work yields the question of the persons involved: Are you willing to explore the act of forgiving and or willing to be forgiven? This is in part what restoration requires.
It is easy secularize the problem of the mass industrial prison complex, but there are apparent faith implications. There are always faith implications, particularly since forgiveness and restoration engages the head, heart and soul – and let’s not forget the physical. It takes all of the above and multiple parties at the table to get the work done.
Do you think that there is a limit to forgiveness?
I approach this conversation from a pastoral psycho-analytic lens. This means that I have commitments to being present with people and meeting them where they are with the matter of forgiveness and restoration. I believe forgiveness is not something people can always do alone. Often the ability to forgive lies within forces beyond one’s self. Essentially, people have to feel compelled to forgive. If you’re not ready to forgive, then you’re just not ready. It is a similar principle at work within people’s engagement of faith and activism.
Many people are not convinced of activism or forgiveness or faith; however, I think it is powerful when one puts themselves in an environment or space to have an encounter with either of these things and acknowledge their doubt and skepticism. It is the act of moving their body where their head and heart isn’t. The hope is the head and the heart will come along in time. It takes willingness. Restorative Justice and forgiveness both requires a sense of willingness from all parties involved. And, the conversation has the potential to be more impactful when one is willing to vocalize that they’re not ready to let go of an offense and forgive. This level of vulnerability and openness does not inhibit the process of Restorative Justice. It is a part of the work to acknowledge one’s limitation and create a space for them to say they’re not ready.
In closing, I offer my own perspective on this issue. Compassion is at the heart of spiritual practice and is the basis for any truly ethical political philosophy. The disregard for the troubled youth of America in the current prison system, questions the moral underpinnings of our democracy. It only stands to reason that if we continue to fear our children, to consider them as irredeemable threats to an imagined stability, they will begin to embody and internalize this dread. In this way those forcibly marginalized in the juvenile justice system grow to complete the destiny expected of them. With limited prospects for reintegration into society, and often saddled with years of destructive psychological treatment, recidivism becomes a way of life.
On November 19, I participated in a post-consultation conversation took place at Union Theological Seminary and was led by Union’s Deputy Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Community Engagement, Tanya Williams, who had also served as a facilitator at the conference. In this discussion, Dr. Derick Wilson of Ireland conceptualized God as the sacred space where people can be themselves; a space provided where the full humanity of those in conversation can be expressed. Amen.