It is appropriate that I am writing this piece, on the topic of Restorative Justice, on Mercy Sunday. Just a few days ago, Pope Francis declared a year of mercy in which he reminded us to use the time to, among other exercises, practice the Spiritual Works of Mercy, which include comforting the afflicted and forgiving offences.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. According to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, on any given day, there are an estimated 2.7 million children in America with at least one parent in prison or jail. In 2011, 1 in 70 Georgian adults were behind bars-the 4th highest in US.
It is estimated that as much as 20% of the nation’s poverty is caused by incarceration. That is not just a single mother, trying to keep her family together while her spouse is in jail. Once someone is released from prison, the “returning citizen” can face huge hurdles in getting a job, a place to live, and the public assistance his family may already be receiving, such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). These “challenges to reentry” often contribute to the families’ poverty or, worse, result in a return to prison.
That is why The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is working for Restorative Justice. Our work, and our national position paper (http://www.svdpusa.org/members/Programs-Tools/Programs/Voice-of-the-Poor/Position-Papers), is rooted in the church’s history of Catholic Social Teaching, epitomized in the statement of the US Catholic Bishops in their 2000 document Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration:
“The Catholic community has a tremendous history and capacity to help shape the issues of crime and criminal justice…. Teaching right from wrong, respect for life, forgiveness and mercy; standing with victims and their families; reaching out to offenders and their families; building community; advocating policies that offer real alternatives to crime; and, organizing diocesan consultations.”
These are essential elements of restorative justice.
Nationally, SVDP has a pilot project in five cities that is helping returning citizens, those who have been incarcerated, get back on their feet. These projects are in partnership with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and use a component of our Systemic Change model to engage people in designing solutions to their challenges. These pilot projects will help Vincentians experience a model for not only getting people in need on a path to self-sufficiency, but will also teach us how to help restore dignity to an often forgotten group.
Aside from the very core work we do as Vincentians, I have not seen a greater demonstration of mercy in action than the way we treat people who have paid their debt to society and are trying to stay on the straight and narrow, to keep from returning to prison.
While we are not one of the pilot project states, in Georgia we are starting to see some reason to be optimistic about helping returning citizens stay out of prison.
Our Governor just signed an executive order taking off the box “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” from the state job applications—often referred to as a Ban the Box effort. This may seem like a small accomplishment, since it is limited to state jobs and interviewers are still allowed to ask the question during the interview. However, this small step goes a big way to restore confidence among ex-offenders as they struggle to get back on their feet.
Our next effort may be around restoring SNAP benefits to convicted drug felons who have served their sentence and completed probation. Georgia is one of 17 states that has a lifetime ban for that group of returning citizens. It is just one more hurdle they must endure.
In announcing the Year of Mercy (“Face of Mercy”, 4/11/15), Pope Francis reminded us;
“It would not be out of place at this point to recall the relationship between justice and mercy. These are not two contradictory realities, but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love. Mercy is not opposed to justice but rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe.”
The Pope reminds us of the parable of the “ruthless servant,” who, called by his master to return a loan made by the master, begs him on his knees for mercy. His master cancels his debt. But the servant does not offer the same forgiveness to a fellow servant who owed him money. When the master hears of the matter, he brings the first servant back to him, says, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Mt 18:33). Jesus concludes, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Mt 18:35).
Once someone has paid their debt, we should work to restore their place in society and help remove barriers to self-sufficiency. That is one way to serve during the Year of Mercy.
"Solidarity recognizes that "we are all really responsible for all." Not only are we responsible for the safety and well-being of our family and our next-door neighbor, but Christian solidarity demands that we work for justice beyond our boundaries. Christians are asked to see Jesus in the face of everyone, including both victims and offenders. through the lens of solidarity, those who commit crimes and are hurt by crime are not issues or problems; they are sisters and brothers, members of one human family. Solidarity calls us to insist on responsibility and seek alternatives that do not simply punish, but rehabilitate, heal and restore."