Justice won't be justice until Christians are engaged | Print |

By Norman Jameson
Biblical Recorder

ATLANTA-America's treatment of both criminals and victims will never be a "justice system" until Christians engage in a restorative process, said panelists during a special interest session on engaging the criminal justice system at the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant meeting in Atlanta Jan. 31.

Hugh Kirkegaard, a community chaplain in Toronto, said Christians must "re-engage" the criminal justice system because it was evangelical Christians in the late 18th century whose views shaped development of the U.S. penal system, with rehabilitation as the goal and punishment as the method.

"The satisfaction theory of atonement has been the seed bed for modern prisons in western culture," Kirkegaard said. "Evangelical Christians have our fingerprints all over the prison system. It is not an option to re-engage. Because of this history, it is a moral imperative."

"Restorative justice" is a powerful way for people of faith to engage the criminal justice system, which currently focuses on violation of law instead of addressing "the real harms and needs of all people affected when a harm has been done," Kirkegaard said.

Panelists indicated that in today's system, punishment has become big business, and prisoners a "product" on whose back privatized, commercial prison systems operate. One participant said, "Half the counties in New York would go bankrupt" if prisoners were rehabilitated and the prisons closed.

Kirkegaard, with colleague Harry Nigh, developed a program called Circles of Support and Accountability that matches volunteers with soon to be released prisoners and stays with them until they are re-established in their communities. 

He said the prograqm has had a "dramatic impact on public safety" and decreased recidivism 80 percent among sex offenders.

Christians who want to see change in the justice system face a wall of almost hopeless statistics, including 62 percent recidivism among current prisoners and that one-third of black boys will spend time in prison during their lifetimes. Rather than being discouraged, said panelists, Christians should notify a prison chaplain near them and say simply they are persons of faith and they want to help.

When Mark Osler, professor of law at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, was a federal prosecutor in Detroit, Mich., colleagues came back to the office laughing one afternoon. He learned a judge had released a man brought before him that morning in his pajamas, in the dead of winter. When the man told the judge he had no coat, the judge shed his robe, took off his own coat and gave it to the man.

Osler's colleagues thought the judge was stupid "because he's never going to see that coat again."

"That has worn away at me for years," Osler said, "that a man who would do something like that would be a subject of scorn."

"Criminal law is all about managing tragedy," Osler said. "If you do it right, it is wearying and hard. You'll know it's time to leave that profession when it becomes easy because it means you're not listening anymore."

That sensitivity led Osler out of the courtroom and into the classroom, where he teaches prosecutors. He encourages Christian men and women to be prosecutors because they have the power in "the system that grinds people up."

"We need people in that role to be our people, people of faith, who will engage and wrestle with the right and wrong and who will be tired at the end of the day because they wore themselves out on behalf of the powerless," Osler said.

Osler said offenders who succeed in recovering after a conviction "because of people who surround them, people who affirm them."

He encouraged Christians not to be discouraged when facing an entrenched system. He told how he succeeded after many failures in getting changed a sentencing law that treated offenders over crack cocaine 100 times harsher than over the same amount of powdered cocaine.

He was inspired to that task after hearing a defense attorney tell a judge about the racial disparity, callousness and the inhumanity such a system."

Kirkegaard, who works in the "most diverse city in the history of man" said restorative justice "is not a panacea," but it can be adopted to communities to reshape the justice system to meet the needs of the 21st century.

"That is our goal," he said. "How do we as Baptists exercise our faith and political will to make a difference?"

Osler said politicians don't care about this issue because offenders have no political voice. "No presidential candidate is talking about criminal just issues because we don't demand it," he said.

"The gospel is not about retribution, it's about reconciliation," Kirkegaard said. "Restorative justice is not a soft approach. It's tough. Sometimes offenders won't engage. They don't want to face their victim. It's easier to do the time."

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