Below is a guest blog by Jesse Wiese, Policy Analyst at Justice Fellowship, the legislative advocacy arm of Prison Fellowship Ministries. 

Image Credit: Molly Rowan Leach/Feverpitched. All Rights Reserved.

Image Credit: Molly Rowan Leach/Feverpitched. All Rights Reserved. Found at Transformation.

For decades America has taken a “tough-on-crime” approach to criminal justice. This philosophy has generated little in the way of positive results and has resulted in burgeoning state budgets, overcrowded prisons, and low success rates.  States are beginning to understand that we cannot incarcerate ourselves out of the problem of crime and recidivism. Fortunately, lawmakers are beginning to shift from a “tough-on-crime” approach and focus more on the science of criminology, or evidence-based-practices. This shift, however, is motivated predominantly by shrinking state budgets and the need to reduce the rising cost of corrections.

These reforms, while positive, do not go far enough. If we want to realize lasting change within the criminal justice system, we must do more than trim state budgets, institute new programs, or provide staff training — though these actions offer a good starting point. What is needed is a paradigm shift. We as a society need an altering of the lens through which we view crime, the men and women who commit it, and the victims and communities it affects. For a criminal justice system to be truly effective, it must recognize the broken moral foundations which lead to crime and provide a philosophical basis that perpetuates and restores the notions of human dignity and value.

Restorative justice addresses inefficiencies of the status quo and offers solutions that can provide lasting and refreshing change. By placing the victim at the center of the case, restorative justice places government in its rightful role as a facilitator of justice rather than a direct party. More importantly, restorative justice prioritizes victim participation, promotes offender responsibility, and cultivates community engagement. Identifying the needs and responsibilities of these three parties — victims, offenders, and community — is the fuel to realizing restorative outcomes and can be summed up in the following three questions:

First, do the victims and survivors of the criminal act have the right and opportunity to be validated and restored? Under the current system, the proper status of victims and survivors is usurped by the government’s unbalanced role of both victim and prosecutor. Restorative justice promotes the need for victims to be consistently considered throughout the criminal justice process. Although criminal acts often result in damages that can never be fully restored, victims and survivors have legal rights that should be enforced. Victims and survivors of crime may also need help regaining a sense of safety and control over their lives and assistance with damages they suffer, material or otherwise.

Second, are offenders given a fair process, proportionate and definitive punishment, and the expectation and opportunity to make amends? Restorative justice requires that the criminal justice system do more than warehouse people convicted of crimes. By holding men and women accountable for the harm they have caused to their victims and communities, the restorative justice process requires these men and women to take the necessary steps toward making amends and rebuilding trust within their communities. With the goal that those convicted of a crime are treated with dignity and fairness, restorative justice can ensure that punishments delivered will be proportional to the harm caused by the offense.  Through this approach offenders are offered an opportunity for a fresh start, even if incarceration is necessary.

Third, is community safety improved and do communities play a role in restoring victims and those who have completed criminal punishment? Because crime affects communities by eroding public safety and confidence, disrupting order, and undermining common values, communities need to play an integral role in the restoration process. Additionally, communities can actively work to support victims and survivors of crime and help to facilitate the reintegration of those who have completed their criminal punishment. Government should, in turn, promote safety through proven crime reduction practices and the promotion of community education and solutions.

As a society, we have begun to consider the consequences of a “tough-on-crime” approach to criminal justice. Fortunately, there seems to be wide ranging support across both the political and religious spectrums for moving toward a system of restorative justice. However, the much-needed restorative justice reforms will only take place if citizens like you and me speak up, join together, and advocate for change.

You can do so by joining the Justice Fellowship Network. You will be kept up-to-date about reforms that advance restorative justice principles in your state and given opportunities to advocate for those reforms.