Last night the Integritas program had its sixth seminar of the year, on restorative justice. Since we had discussed conflict on an international level the previous week, this week we re-examined our attitudes to violence and conflict on a local level. The readings on the criminal justice system and alternative restorative justice strategies addressed questions such as: What is the situation of prisoners in America? How does our commitment to Christ's mercy affect our approach to incarceration as a punishment? What should the Christian response to local violence be? What do the works of mercy demand of us in relation to offenders? How can we work for justice without sacrificing mercy?
Prof. Susan Sharpe from the Law School began the seminar by narrating a true story of an armed robbery, asking the students to note how their level of compassion for one of the perpetrators of the crime increased or decreased as they learned more details of the story. Afterwards, students discussed their reactions, which varied significantly. The discussion then moved to what the appropriate punishment for the crime would be, and how such a decision should be arbitrated. We had read that restorative justice begins with the questions of 'Who has been harmed by this crime?' and 'What needs arise from that harm?' whereas our adversarial criminal justice system begins from 'What law was broken?' and 'What is the penalty for such a breach?'. We found in the discussion that as much as we tried to think through the scenario within the framework of restorative justice, the debate would continually fall into the adversarial framework we have all been raised with. It is a challenge to think outside of the box.
We discussed restorative justice strategies such as bringing the victims and offenders together with a mediator to discern what reparation for the harm done would be appropriate, rather than cases going to trial before a traditional arbiter such as a judge. We also discussed alternatives to incarceration. The students were shocked to learn more about the state of the American prison system, particularly with its racial disparities. For example, as of the year 2000, 10% of all black American males were currently incarcerated. Everyone agreed that the prison system is deeply flawed, but incarceration is obviously still necessary for many crimes, and it is a challenge to try to make incarceration part of a restorative justice framework, with progress towards healing emphasized.
Students also identified limitations in the restorative justice model, such as cases in which one or both parties have no interest in participating in mediation sessions, or when the egregiousness of the crime threatens to turn the victim into an offender in seeking reparations, since there is a natural inclination to view justice as 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' One student also pointed out that in all of the restorative justice readings, while the focus was intended to be on the needs of the victim, the focus too often shifted to be solely on the needs of the offender. Both needs are important, but there would be no justice in restorative justice if it became preoccupied exclusively with how to act with mercy towards offenders, and not how to restore the victim to wholeness. We debated what limit cases for a restorative system there might be, and how a hybrid system might function, incorporating both elements of restorative justice and our traditional criminal justice system. It was a complex discussion, and one that caused everyone to re-examine their assumptions about both victims and offenders.
As a follow-up to the seminar, we look forward to playing some pick-up basketball with the residents of Dismas House, a residential prisoner re-entry program in South Bend, on campus in a couple of weeks.