Sunday, July 01, 2007

Restorative Justice Presents Challenges and Opportunities for Faith Community

The faith community faced two hard-edged challenges at the Restorative Justice conference in Kerrville last week, but the more immediately controversial frontal assault from Travis County DA Ronnie Earle last Tuesday on the subject of "separation of church and state," to me, doesn't pose nearly the long-term challenge as did the more subtle but equally strident criticism that RJ's adoption chiefly by offender advocates could cause the restorative justice movement to "lose its soul."

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.
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!).
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.)

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


Anonymous said...

It is long past time for the pendulum of criminal justice to swing away from punishment toward rehabilitation.

The concepts of restorative justice you have presented may be just what is needed.

The idea of criminals as human beings in need of just as much care as victims is truly a step in the right direction.

I would hate to deny the public their perception of criminals as monsters but the fact is that many 'victims' are the real monsters. The accuser in the Duke LaCrosse case comes to mind as an example.

Criminals are always human beings with lives, families and loved ones. To think anything less is to deny the better nature of our society.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mr Earle, but the system in TX facilitates the atmosphere where in most cases, religious groups are the only ones with the means and ability to do anything for the inmates. Mr Earle is also right in saying that no kind of religious course or anything should be a condition of receiving parole ~ simply because ALL the courses currently available to TDCJ inmates are run along Christian lines and by default discourage any other religious persuasion or none from taking part with honesty (which I assume is something that everyone wants to promote to offenders, the act of being honest?).

Scott, you ask: Who else, after all, is doing anything at all for these offenders who's not paid to?

Appart from religious groups, it's the families who do the rest, often under the disaproval of TDCJ.

nandabean said...

Our criminal justice system is not designed to rehabilitate criminals or to comfort victims; it is designed to remove troublesome, and potentially troublesome, people from society as easily as possible and for as long as possible. With few exceptions, prison isn't for the educated and the wealthy--it's for the poor, the illiterate and the dysfunctional.

This is why advocates of restorative justice must also be devoted to criminal justice reform. This means confronting problems like wrongful prosecution, the gross underfunding of public defender programs and the institutional racism reflected in the bizarre number of young black males currently being locked up.

People of faith should be on the front lines of this fight. Friends of Justice will soon be relocating to the DFW area where we will be launching a Common Peace Initiative
designed to bring black and white religious communities together around the issue of criminal justice reform. At present, most congregations won't want to play--but there are so many churches in the DFW area that we will be able to establish a beachhead (at least in the black community) and move from there.

Anonymous said...

What religion does Mr. Earle belong to? I would like to know as he is not speaking as a man of God. He makes my stomache turn and his comments would tend to make all wonder just what his agenda really is. He needs to take lessons from his wife. He fails as a Christian.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:44 - Just stop! Judgmental comments such as yours are what motivate Christian-bashing. I have personally witnessed an outreach of compassion and justice (doing what is in harmony with the character of God) transform the hearts of offenders. And that is what's necessary to stop the cycle of victimization. Nothing threatening about it, just God's power to change the fundamental human condition. When this transition takes place, everyone benefits - victims, offenders, families. We should all celebrate the fact that SOMEONE is willing to bring it in; not become paranoid over the source.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Earle has a case. In my experience, primarily with Christian groups, some religious volunteers are not sensitive to the fact that they are dealing with a captive audience when at a detention or correctional institution. While these volunteers mean no harm, few take concrete steps to protect the religious rights of non-Christian inmates.

Also in my experience, primarily with Christian groups, many volunteers in detention/prison ministry are deeply moved by the "neediness" of prisoners; whether those needs are physical, emotional and/or spiritual. Viewing someone only in terms of their "needs" may keep you from seeing them as a whole person.

Coming to see the whole person is a psychological/spiritual journey that a volunteer can walk “with” an inmate! Some volunteers are only prepared to take that journey down a particular religious path or follow a particular religious map. That is O.K. – that is good! “Know thyself!” It is my hope that more volunteers will acknowledge to themselves and any inmates they walk “with,” the particular path or map with which they are most comfortable/knowledgeable.

Last, in relation to Restorative Justice, I think that journey -- seeing others as a whole person -- applies to all of us, volunteer, victim, offender, etc.

Anonymous said...

I did not intend for my comments to be critical of the Lord. I am a Christian and I have volunteered at a prison to teach Sunday School and I am glad someone is coming to help in Texas. Our judicial system is totally out of control here and in all of this country.

I did not mean to be critical of Mr. Earle and if he truly means what he said, then may the Lord bless him, but I remember and know most DAs are against Inmates and don't consider them human. I hope Mr. Earle is not of this group. Welcome to Texas "Friends of Justice"

Anonymous said...

You can consider someone to be human without trying to indoctrinate them when they are at their lowest point in life.

Anonymous said...

The facts speak for themselves. The multi-denominational, non-prolytizing programs such as Kairos have had a very dramatic effect on recidivism. Hardened, skeptical old wardens around the world have testified to this.

Sometimes, volunteers do over-identify with the prisoners and develop a "we vs them" mentality towards the corrections staff. When this happens, the credibility of the ministry suffers. Team leaders have to be very sensitive to that. In the best cases, reconciliation occurs, not only between the prisoners and their victims, but between the prisoners and the corrections staff.