Restorative Justice: Dreaming a New Way Forward

Consultation on Restorative Justice Plenary (Adrienne Nicole Productions)

by Karenna Gore

(Want more about restorative justice? Read this interview with Chris Jones, ’13, and this interview with Tanya Williams, Union’s Deputy Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Community Engagement)

What then shall we do about mass incarceration?

As we saw in the Cellblocks and Border Stops conference this fall, the injustice of our criminal justice system  has had a devastating effect on millions of Americans, with religious communities  too often supporting the status quo. That conference explored the role theology has played in this crisis and the way theology can lead the way out. Shortly after Cellblocks, and amidst the ongoing work of our Center for Race Religion and Economic Democracy (C-RRED), Union Theological Seminary participated in an international gathering to explore one alternative to our current criminal justice system: restorative justice.

The Consultation on Restorative Justice and Youth Incarceration, which took place at Fordham University at Lincoln Center on November 18th, put guests from New Zealand, Ireland and Norway together with people from various perspectives on our own system, including the courts, public safety, social services, advocacy groups, academia and religious organizations. Union President emeritus Donald Shriver and his wife Peggy provided the leadership, having been inspired by the innovation they saw on a trip to New Zealand: incorporating Maori traditions of community conferencing (where those who have been harmed and those who have caused the harm sit and talk together) into the way society handles crime. Having worked on issues of social justice for many years, the Shrivers recognized the potential for this approach to help save American society from the crisis of mass incarceration we face today.

One of the striking elements of this discussion was hearing how other cultures look at the United States and getting their input on what an alternative approach to justice has to offer. Christopher Marshall, Professor at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, explained restorative justice through theology.

It seeks to “close the gap between human justice and divine justice,” he said in the plenary session. “To see the personal transformation that takes place as a result of a personal encounter in a facilitated way” is “awe-inspiring.”

Although some in the field now prefer the term “transformative justice,” Derrick Wilson, Professor at the University of Northern Ireland, explained restorative justice refers to “helping us back to the full vitality of what it means to be truly human.”

Another striking element was the presence of heartbroken and frustrated people who have been forced to enforce the current system. Judge George McKinnis of the Bronxville District court gave powerful witness to the toll the current system takes explaining that most people he sees in his courtroom are “serious recidivists who, if you look into their faces, whose lives have been utterly destroyed. The legislature gives me no tools by which I can be of aid to those people. I can only send them back in.” Judge Judith Kaye was particularly incensed that lawmakers did not act on the increasing scientific knowledge about brain development. Despite the fact that studies clearly show that cognitive processes are not fully formed until the early twenties, even teenagers have been subject to the same hyper-punitive system that does not seem to be effective, much less humane.

This sense of a disconnect to the legislative process grew to be a consensus of the conference. As Julio Medina put it in the first roundtable discussion, what is lacking is political will. And it is the very factors that are addressed in the restorative justice process— such as poverty, racism and abuse—that come into play in the political climate. As Martha Weissman, Executive Director for Community Alternatives said, our current justice system has “more to do with race, class, structural poverty and the legacy of racism” than people have cared to admit.

The conference ended with a powerful call to work together for change, to reach out in vulnerable communities with compassion, and to make the moral and ethical arguments people need to hear into our civic debate.

C-RRED is currently applying insights from the consultation to their work with the Interfaith Organizing Initiative to build a movement: Drafting institutions with a stated commitment for racial justice into collective action.