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Christian dimension advocated in `restorative justice’ after crime

WASHINGTON (BP)–After Joseph Minotti’s seventh conviction for drunken driving, he wasn’t put in jail. Law enforcement officials in Genessee County, N.Y., had tried that, as well as fining him and revoking his driver’s license — all to no avail.
This time Minotti was put in the county’s pre-trial diversion program. He was under house arrest from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day, performed 200 hours of community service for the American Red Cross, took individual and group counseling, met weekly with a minister and attended victim impact meetings of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
The result: Minotti released a statement to local newspapers in which he apologized to the community for his conduct over a 10-year period. He now runs a business in nearby Erie County and has been law abiding for seven years.
Genessee County’s program, in use since 1980, is an example of a concept known as restorative justice. It gives nonviolent offenders a chance to make restitution for their crimes and reconcile with the victims, offering the possibility of both promoting justice and cutting down on the prison population. Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship has been a pioneer in promoting this approach from a Christian perspective.
As described by Dan Van Ness, who helped PF develop the concept and outlined it in the book, “Restoring Justice,” it “considers the needs of all the affected parties — the victim, the offender, their families and community members. It often brings the parties together to identify the wrong done by the offender, to understand the harm that resulted, and to agree on an accountability plan through which the offender can begin making things right.” Van Ness notes under Old Testament law as described in Exodus 22, criminals were held accountable to repay their victims.
In an article on the Genessee County program in the January- February issue of Policy Review, published by the Heritage Foundation, deputy editor Joe Loconte stresses the role of churches in such efforts in promoting forgiveness. He writes Christian forgiveness means to yield any claim to resentment or retribution, “acknowledges the evil act for what it is, but holds out hope for the evildoer.”
In the Genessee County program’s 17-year history, felonies have dropped 14 percent, and the recidivism rate for felony offenders in the program is less than half that of criminals sentenced to prison or probation. Officials say they have saved more than $2 million, or about $55 a day per inmate, by keeping offenders out of jail. Offenders in the program have performed more than 250,000 hours of community service. Nationwide, states and localities host more than 300 such programs, in which offenders meet with their victims and pledge restitution or community service.
Restorative justice approaches show promise but should not be used naively, according to Byron Johnson, professor of criminology at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, and director of its Center for Justice, Research and Education.
“I guess I have mixed feelings about it,” Johnson told Baptist Press. “No one’s a bigger fan than me, and no one’s a bigger critic than me.”
Johnson, a member of Calvary Baptist Church in Beaumont, commended Prison Fellowship for putting a Christian element into a program that had been dominated by people on the political left who were opposed to any kind of incarceration. A key element of restorative justice programs, Johnson said, needs to be trained Christian volunteers willing to devote significant amounts of time to mentoring inmates rather than just going into a prison and leading people through a sinner’s prayer.
Johnson questioned the emphasis on bringing offenders and victims face-to-face because many victims feel so violated, even by property crimes, that they resist dealing personally with the criminal. And although such arrangements are made with the consent of both parties, he questioned how truly voluntary it is on the part of victims who may be cajoled by well-meaning officials who want the programs to work.
If churches or individuals want to get involved in programs like restorative justice, Johnson advised they connect with Prison Fellowship and get properly trained.
“The last thing you want is to send a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals in there,” he said, adding it’s important that Christian volunteers be “really committed in their relationship with the Lord. If you don’t have a burden, don’t do it.”