Justice That Is Redemptive

  This weekend scholars and activists from all over America will be in Washington for a conference, at which I will be speaking, discussing the idea of "restorative justice," a new way to understand how our justice system ought to function. Most secular justice systems developed over the past century have dealt primarily with rehabilitation or retribution. Liberals believed that if we took people out of their sad environments, where they were victims of poverty or oppression, and put them in "reformatories," they could be reformed. This was the model we called "rehabilitation." Though noble-sounding, this system was based on a false premise, that people are basically good. It was also an abysmal failure. We kept building more and more prisons, and the recidivism rate kept increasing. As I discovered in prison, no one is rehabilitated inside a cold, steel warehouse. Conservatives had a different view. They thought if we got tough enough, we could scare people out of crime. That meant tougher retribution. But the result of that was a building boom in the eighties and nineties that has left this country with the highest incarceration rate per capita in the world. And the repeat-offender rate remains the same. Neither approach worked -- and neither restores the peace of the community that was shattered by crime. Restorative justice, on the other hand, restores that peace, and it's a biblical concept. The Jews used the word "Shalom," not as a greeting as we use it, but to describe the real peace of the community -- that is, maintaining the right moral order. Restorative justice seeks not only to punish the offender but then to re-integrate him into the community. That's what's behind programs like Transition Of Prisoners (TOP) and InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI). We insist that offenders be mentored before they can be released back into society. And it's important to enact laws that ensure that the community is restored, like restitution, which pays back the victim, and community punishment, which keeps offenders near home. The rights of the victim have to be respected as well, and wherever possible, victims and offenders need to be reconciled. "Fine," you may say, "but does restorative justice really work?" Just ask Mrs. Washington. Twenty years ago her daughter was murdered, and the man convicted of the crime steadfastly refused to admit his guilt. Refused, that is, until he became involved in our prison ministry in Texas. When Ron Flowers came to Christ he realized he needed to come clean, and admit his sin, and he finally confessed what he had done. Knowing nothing of the confession, Mrs. Washington at the same time felt led to forgive Ron for the murder, and she wrote the parole board withdrawing her objections to his pending parole. Then she learned that he had come to Christ and confessed to her daughter's murder. She met him at the prison one night, and after a tearful, wrenching night, they were reconciled. Later, Mrs. Washington took Ron under her wing, and called him her adopted son. She then mentored him on his release from prison. That's restoring shalom, the peace of the community that is fractured by crime. Restorative justice, you see, defies the old model of corrections because it changes hearts and minds -- and it heals the wounds of communities broken by crime. That's something all Americans are yearning for.


Chuck Colson


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