Restorative justice should be advocated as a key element in criminal justice reform, according to participants at an April 25 conference in Washington sponsored by the Catholic Mobilizing Network, which champions restorative justice as well as an end to the death penalty.

Just looking at the numbers, recidivism rates for adults are between 65 and 70 percent, according to Tim Wolfe, a sociology and criminal justice professor at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

"Depending on the nature of the restorative justice program, this can be cut in half, and can be even lower," Wolfe said.

He quoted Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, who runs Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles for former gang members. Father Boyle had said, "A job may keep a kid from going back to prison, but a heal -- he'll never go back to prison again." Wolfe said the priest was alluding to the pain many in prison or facing jail time have felt since childhood due to abuse and a lack of love. They committed crimes to try and erase that pain or to feel a sense of belonging.

"This is smart money," Wolfe said during the conference, held at The Catholic University of America, Washington, one of the conference's sponsors. "These are effective programs."

Vicki Schieber, whose daughter was murdered by a serial rapist 20 years ago, said that her initial instinct upon hearing of her daughter's slaying, despite a family steeped in the Catholic faith, was, "I wanna kill him." Eventually, she and her husband determined that capital punishment for the criminal was "not what she would have wanted," and sought to spare his life once the man was charged.

While the Schiebers were not permitted to meet their daughter's murderer, they received a letter eight years after the crime in which he wrote, "I am so sorry that I did this to your family." The Schiebers also corresponded with his mother, who wrote about ignoring her children's pleas for them to leave her abusive husband: "Daddy's being mean." The woman, who died last year, said she should have listened to her children. "I am," she wrote the Schiebers, "the one who murdered your daughter."

"The church's teaching on restorative justice is the best-kept secret of the best-kept secret," which many identify as Catholic social teaching, said Msgr. Stuart Swetland, president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Missouri, and a Catholic television and radio program host.

He lamented that the 1994 Get Tough on Crime Act banned the use of federal Pell grants to inmates to advance their education. Donnelly College established its own education-in-prison curriculum in which 420 inmates have taken courses, and 23 have earned degrees. Only four prisoner-students have returned to jail after having committed new crimes after their release.

"It's a drop in the bucket. It's one program in one place. But it works," Msgr. Swetland said.

Kathryn Getek Soltis, an assistant professor of Christian ethics at Villanova University in Philadelphia and director of the school's Center for Peace and Justice Education, voiced her hope that one day justice itself will be defined as restorative justice.

Soltis said society should own up to its "complicity in allowing people who have committed offenses to be people we are allowed to hate."

Not providing education, work or living wages "are crimes, too," Soltis said, "but we just don't have any words for it." Instead, "we cause the system to demonize people that we don't want to consider part of 'us' ... and we've created an economic system to keep this going."

Jesuit Father George Williams, a Catholic chaplain at San Quentin since 2011, said: "Ninety-five percent of the people I work with in prison are addicts today or in there because of drugs."

He agreed with Soltis' point about the economics of incarceration. "There are very few, less than 5 percent," who can't ever be let out of prison, he said. Moreover, Father Williams added, "prison doesn't have to be a hellish experience," although the environment behind bars "depends on what level of cruelty we're willing to tolerate."

Congressional efforts on criminal justice reform, say members of both parties, "depend on a bipartisan consensus," even if one can't be achieved at the moment, said Michael O'Rourke, a policy adviser for the U.S. bishops' Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development.

Sentencing reform is one key aspect of bills awaiting action, O'Rourke said, although restorative justice doesn't seem to be included in them.

More action is in the states, he added, as the majority of people in prisons are there for state and not federal offenses. The cost of housing prisoners and the increasing costs of tending to an aging prisoner population are causing lawmakers to tweak state policy.

Lives changed by restorative justice on open display at conference

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A caged prison jumpsuit, which is part of an art installation protesting the death penalty, is seen in Washington April 5, 2017. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn) 

"B -- that's me," said Bill Gaertner.

He was looking at a screen behind him during a panel presentation at the Catholic Mobilizing Network's "Redemption and Restoration" conference. On the screen were a number of options conference participants and those viewing it online could choose what drew them to take part. Among the options were prison ministry, being a crime victim or the family member of a crime victim, and working in the legislative arena to bring about change.

"B," which registered zero online votes, stood for ex-offender.

Gaertner, now 75, a onetime seminarian and college basketball coach, spent more than eight years in prison on a domestic violence conviction after beating up his second wife. About half of that sentence was spent inside a prison in Hagerstown, Maryland. When he got out, he decided to stay there.

He founded Gatekeepers, a program that helps ex-offenders make the transition back to their home communities after serving their prison sentence. "I'm on probation, and I run a program where parole officers and probation officers send their people to me. We do the spiritual works of mercy," he said. "But we've got to do the corporal workers of mercy."

Gaertner's day has its routine: "I get up at 6, go to Mass, go to Roy Rogers (a small East Coast fast-food chain restaurant), and then I am on the go until midnight." Gaertner was accepted as an oblate novice at the Benedictine community of St. Anselm's Abbey in Washington. As a condition of his probation, though, he must let his probation officer know whenever he intends to leave Maryland.

His story was the only first-person account during the conference, but those who have worked with or ministered to others in the criminal justice system had their tales to tell of how restorative justice makes a positive impact.

Matt Cuff, senior policy adviser of the office of Justice and Ecology of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, told the story of Hector, a Los Angeles teen in a gang who was arrested for carjacking; his getaway was foiled when he discovered the car he had just forced its owner out of had a stick-shift.

While in juvenile detention, he found that for the first time in his life, "he had his own room, he had three meals a day, and a window where he can see green grass," Cuff said. Hector later spent a second, longer stint in detention for a drug offense. He was accepted into Homeboy Industries and is now its associate executive director.

But his start wasn't easy, Cuff noted. Before he was born, Hector's father died of an overdose. He was abused by stepfathers and slept on strangers' couches. "Perpetrators are victims, too," Cuff added.

Joe Cotton, director of pastoral care and outreach for the Archdiocese of Seattle, told the story of Ramon, who was looking at two years of juvenile detention for a felony offense when he was offered the option of participating in a "peacemaking circle," which King County, Washington, had implemented not long before.

White it kept Ramon out of detention, the circles, which met at least monthly for one year, Cotton said the process was tough on the teenager, as it forced him to look at his life in a way he had not ever done before. "About halfway through, Ramon said, 'Oh, my goodness. This is too much. Just send me to jail,'" Cotton recalled. Other circle participants suggested he sleep on it rather than quit outright.

Ramon stuck with it, and after the circles were completed, he was put on probation, performed community service, got a job, then a high school diploma, and is now not only working his way through college, according to Cotton, but helps run peacemaking circles for others. "He is a changed and transformed human being from the process," Cotton said.

Janine Geske, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice for five years, directs the Restorative Justice Initiative at Marquette University, where she taught for 15 years after leaving the court.

She told of a young man who struck and killed a young woman while driving drunk. Both were students at the same college, although they did not know each other. Convicted and filled with remorse, he was a prime candidate for restorative justice. Some in the young woman's family were not so eager. "To hear survivors talk, 'forgiveness' is the F-word: 'Don't talk to me about forgiveness, let them do all the work,'" Geske said.

"We spend six months, eight months prepping everybody," she added, but the young woman's younger sister was defiant; she would go to the opening session, but only for her family. At the session, a DVD was played showing pictures of the dead woman's short life, including a photo taken not long before the fatal accident. The man in prison, not having known anything about the woman until then, was weeping openly.

"And this younger sister, who said she wasn't going to have anything to do with him, took a fistful of Kleenex and pushed it across the table at him," Geske related. "At the end, she said to him, 'You just saved my life today.' 'I forgive you' wasn't necessary," Geske added. "That said all that needed to be said."

"When people ask why we do the work," Geske said, "this is why."

Copyright ©2018 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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