On Monday, January 26th, faith leaders gathered in Washington D.C. to discuss restorative justice as a Christian approach to the criminal justice system.
The United States is home to more incarcerated citizens than any other nation in the entire world. With 25 percent of the world’s prison population behind bars in the U.S., prison reform is an issue of rising bipartisan support in Washington. It’s also a huge concern among Christian social justice advocates, especially since there is a strong link between incarceration rates and poverty rates and reform may greatly improve overall human well-being.
The event was hosted at the Family Research Council and organized by Justice Fellowship, an outgrowth of Prison Fellowship, Chuck Colson’s ministry to prisoners. Justice Fellowship was started to transform the injustices within our criminal justice system.
Heather Rice-Minus, senior policy advisor at Justice Fellowship, describes restorative justice as,
An approach to the criminal justice system that recognizes and advances the dignity of human life. It prioritizes harmed party participation, promotes accountability of the responsible party, and cultivates community engagement.
Two current legislative areas of focus for Justice Fellowship includes limiting debt penalties for responsible parties and improving the victim compensation system by increasing program efficiency, minimizing financial waste, and getting more money into the hands of victims.
Justice Fellowship is also focusing on making change in which you can participate directly.
Reforming Language to Reflect the Image of God
Rice-Minus believes language changes culture. She encourages everyone to refer to convicted criminals released from prison as “responsible parties” instead of “ex-offenders.”
“Responsible party” respects the dignity of the individual because it acknowledges their responsibility of a crime, but it is also a forgiving term that does not define the individual based on their past mistakes.
This will not only change the way the community views their relationship with those recently released from prison, but also the way those individuals view themselves: as someone who has fallen short but is offered forgiveness and healing.
This is a crucial element for a smooth transition of the responsible party back into their community, job, and family.
Perhaps changing the language is only “putting lipstick on the pig” as one attendee pointed out. But Rice-Minus believes this is a powerful cultural shift that must take place if we truly want to be advocates for restorative justice.
Getting Responsible Parties Back on Their Feet
Imagine being released from prison with nothing more than a bus ticket and fifty dollars. About 80 percent of ex-offenders end up going back to prison.
The Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) located in Houston, Texas works to help former inmates start businesses. Rice-Minus mentioned PEP as one admirable organization working to restore justice.
After an application and screening process, top candidates are selected to participate in the program. In the program, they are linked with business academics in mentoring relationships and study a rigorous MBA-level curriculum in order to learn the business skills they need to become successful entrepreneurs.
100 percent of graduates have a job or start a business within ninety days of graduation. PEP is not just helping former inmates find work, it’s helping them rediscover their humanity, their Imago Dei.
Learn how to get involved here.
How Should Christians View Prison Reform?
Rice-Minus asked the group if they think Christians view prison reform through a lens of their faith. The general consensus was “no.”
- “Christians don’t get behind issues unless it’s black and white,” one attendee chimed in.
- Others voiced their concern that Republicans and Democrats were more involved with prison reform than the church.
The exact reason for the lack of church involvement in prison reform is unclear, perhaps because it’s more of a “gray” issue without an easy biblical answer, or maybe it’s just because most Christians just don’t have the luxury of spending time diving into the details of the problem.
Regardless, there is one thing all Christians can agree on: criminals are redeemable, and justice means treating them as such.
Rice-Minus calls the church to step up and act on the issue of criminal justice. She used Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s explanation of the three ways the church can act towards the state (Taken from Bonhoeffer’s The Church and the Jewish Question):
- “Ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e. it can throw the state back on its responsibilities.”
- “Aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.”
- “Not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself. Such action would be direct political action, and is only possible and desirable when the church sees the state fail in its function of creating law and order.”
According to Bonhoeffer, the church is required to act if the law of the state is unjust. Whether it’s “putting a spoke in the wheel itself” through legislative action or “bandaging the victims under the wheel” through a simple change in language, the church can be a powerful force in restoring justice and helping responsible parties rediscover their Imago Dei.
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