I'd estimate about half the 300+ attendees were somehow affiliated with prison ministries and the faith community, and indeed prison ministry activists were the first people I ever heard speak of restorative justice, most prominently Emmett Solomon, the former TDCJ prison chaplain who runs the Restorative Justice Ministries Network in Huntsville.
So when Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle told the audience, "Don't take restorative justice to church," you could hear the rumblings begin as he spoke. There was even a brief, awkward pause when he finished, before a kind woman in front of me politely began applauding and broke the ice. I looked up from my note taking and applauded, too. He's right, sort of ... sometimes.
It's easy to see why religious folk who visit offenders in prison as a ministry would be receptive to a healing rather than inherently punitive approach to criminal justice. There are two obvious reasons: 1) their personal relationships humanize offenders for prison ministry activists, who see the system up close for themselves and know of many problems the public doesn't see, and 2) some (though not all, by any stretch) see people caught up in the criminal justice system as a captive audience for proselytizing.
The more your goals for restorative justice tend to reason number two, the more likely you were to be really offended at Earle's remarks. And he's definitely wielding a two-edged sword here; as he acknowledged privately, we cannot turn the corrections system into a place where radical spiritual growth - "transcendence," to use Howard Zehr's more secular term - cannot occur. Religious folks working with inmates on a voluntary basis are performing an important service. Who else, after all, is doing anything at all for these offenders who's not paid to? Not very many folks, I'll assure you.
Whatever you believe about God or whatever definitions you use to describe spiritual concepts, few people who observe the criminal justice system believe that every problem can be resolved by presenting an offender with rational choices based on an ever-escalating series of punishments. That kind of cause and effect thinking doesn't always drive us, especially when we're young. Sometimes spiritual changes rather than rational choices motivate an individual to change their life, whether thanks to religion or on some other, equally profound level.
Earle said that for him, as a prosecutor, restorative justice “is a way to make victim pain and anger count” by contributing toward victim healing and offender change. "Democracy is in trouble," said Earle. "There's a sense of powerlessness that can become fear," and ultimately "that fear is the basis of fascism." Fear is "contrary to our traditions," he said. "We're a muscular people" who don't like to depend on police or the government. Helping eliminate that fear is part of restorative healing both for the victim and the community, said Earle.
Up until this point, Earle had found a sympathetic audience, then he waded into deeper waters. "When people are under state sanction," Earle insisted, "religion cannot be a part." The cornerstone of democracy is mutual respect for the "right to an inner life of one's own choosing." Those sworn to defend the constitution "have a duty to prevent the abridgment of people's right when it comes to freedom of religion and freedom from religion," he said.
In perhaps his most inflammatory moment, Earle declared that imposing religious study or church attendance as part of a state prison sanction was no different than policies under "the Taliban." "There's a great need for mentors," he said, but "there's no need to cross the line." ... "Religion can shine through the example of someone's life."
"Democracy is a moment by moment choice," said Earle. "Are we fostering connection and mutual respect, or alienation and hatred like the Taliban? Where do we draw the line, because it's a slippery slope." After the speech, a lot of prison ministry folks surrounded Earle in what appeared to be heated discussion, and later somebody mentioned he'd received an earful over it.
I get the concern, but think it's overstated in this instance. To be sure, there are exceptions. I met a fellow at the conference whose name, group and town shall remain nameless (since it was a private conversation) who ran a halfway house in a major Texas city. He viewed the entire purpose of operating the halfway house, to judge by our conversation, as "preaching the gospel" to those under his charge, in no uncertain terms. What he liked about it was the captive audience. That's exactly the type of scenario Earle sees as intolerable.
That said, most people I know who work in prison ministries are received by folks who are thrilled to see them and who otherwise might not get many other visitors. Their interactions are voluntary, and nobody is exposed to proselytizing against their will. Indeed, many folks in prison are desperately seeking for a missing spiritual component in their lives, and often religion helps them turn their lives around. When they choose.
When I was a kid at First Baptist Church in Tyler, I recall a then-elderly gentleman named M.O. Davis did a lot of the heavy lifting as a volunteer in the church prison ministry. That was long before I ever thought I'd wind up focused on criminal justice topics, but I remember M.O. (as he was universally called) telling me thirty years ago that when they were inside, these men needed a friend. When they got out, their friend could invite them to church. Some changed their lives and committed to Christ inside prison, and he was there for them, too, but Davis was interested in folks committing to Christ of their own free will. He ministered to people in prison because Christ commanded it, not as a quid pro quo to leverage their spiritual rebirth.
A lot's changed since then in the religious world, but I'm still confident most prison ministry folks aren't remotely interested in trotting down the road to fascism. Many folks felt insulted by Earle's comments, and justly so because he made a pretty sweeping statement without distinction, clearly intending to be provocative. OTOH, as with my friend running the halfway house, there were folks there doing exactly what Earle most criticized - imposing religious proselytizing as a condition of living in state-funded transition housing. So there are definitely blurred lines within the movement that may ultimately be worked out in court before everything is done.
Even so, I don't think religious folks' participation in the restorative justice movement poses nearly the challenge to the movement Earle does. The more substantive but less discussed challenge to prison ministry participation in the restorative justice movement came from people like Mark Umbreit, who expressed fear that an exclusive focus on offenders could cause restorative justice to "lose its soul." After all, isn't a sympathetic offender focus precisely what such folks bring to the table?
So why are prison ministry folks attracted to restorative justice philosophies? Besides reasons quoted directly from scripture, of which I heard a couple that didn't make it into my notes, over the course of three days of conversations with folks three themes arose that seemed to give a partial explanation:
1. Their close association with offenders and personal philosophy makes them prefer healing to punishment for those in prison and also for victims, though for many that's not their focus.I'm sure there are other reasons, too. But those stuck out from some of the conversations I had. (Of six workshop "tracks" at the conference, one was on "Faith Groups and Restorative Justice," but I focused more on the policy and research track areas, more by following my nose than by any prior intent.)
2. There's a general belief among many in prison evangelism that if people could come to view offenders as human beings instead of scary monsters, they'd have more sympathy for them and be less likely to support regressive "tuff on crime" laws and policies. Many victim-offender mediation programs and other RJ practices contain such a micro-level teaching aspect to them.
3. The focus on victims in restorative justice has the secondary impact of diminishing the focus on so-called victimless crimes like drug offenses (a topic which, interestingly, I heard discussed not once at a plenary or workshop, but frequently over meals and in private conversation!).
People have been navigating the lines that worry Mr. Earle for many years, and while I've no doubt some will push the matter, by comparison with Umbreit's critique those are mere growth pains - the kind of thing the movement inevitably must experience in its early years then will get over soon enough.
However, the main political barrier to implementing RJ ideas remains the perception that it's focused on and mainly benefits offenders instead of victims, even though victims, in practice, should benefit most. Litigation can't resolve a credibility problem. The movement will ultimately need credible champions for victims to succeed, and whether Mr. Earle likes it or not, the religious community may be the most likely group in the room to bring that constituency to the table, at least with a little repositioning of the issue.
RELATED: "People of faith called on to help offenders," Kerrville Daily Times, June 26