Justice in a Forgiving Society ~ Guest Contributor, Grant Tietjen
When thinking about the current American Criminal Justice system, spiritual concepts are often not the first ideas which come to mind. Everyday, news outlets are flooded with headlines focused on social problems; ‘war on drugs,” crime, and administration of justice. In 2001, I found myself in the middle of one of these headlines, as a practicing drug addict and dope dealer. I was literally living on the wrong side of the law and was convicted of a drug distribution charge, and was directly introduced into the federal prison system. I served a two-year sentence in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP), in which time I flew on Con-Air, was incarcerated in four states, 13+ jails, a private prison, and two federal prisons. Through this ordeal, I was thrown into the middle of the tough on crime/harsh punishment model in the world’s largest prison system, an experience few would want. Yet, there is some light in this dark story. One thing you quickly discover when locked down is that you have a lot of time for introspection. I started to think about where I had been, where I was going -- and where I wanted to go. Additionally, I saw young men’s (U.S. prison population is about 92% men) lives torn apart (usually from disadvantaged backgrounds) by unnecessarily harsh sentences, for actions that didn’t warrant brutality. At that point in time I formed a rough idea that I wanted to go back to get an education. Through the process of pursuing higher education for the next 10 years after I was released from prison (in 2003), I came to understand that what I experienced in prison was the “tough on crime” model of justice. and Through my studies, I discovered mountains of evidence exist which show that such policies do not work to improve society for all. I began to look for types of justice that helped improve peoples’ lives, and I found restorative justice, a model that finds its roots in forgiveness.
Restorative justice originated in response to the heavy-handed tough on crime justice model, and one of the places this started in the U.S. is within communities of faith. This justice model recognized that the person who committed the crime had done wrong, and some sort of payment must be made to society, yet once that payment had been made, then the offender was welcomed back into society with open arms, their wrongs forgiven. Plus, the restorative model directly involved the offender, the crime victim, and the surrounding community. Thus, the individual who committed the crime had a chance to directly rectify their wrongs within society, and not be forcefully separated by the razor wire of a prison. Scholars and policy makers have referred to “shalom” as the root of the Christian discussion of restorative justice. Further, restorative justice reinforces Christ’s message of forgiveness of all sinners for all sins, if they are willing to repent and take action to demonstrate their repentance. As shalom emphasizes attaining peace and balance within society, the philosophy of restorative justice is to carry out this process through forgiving the offender, emphasizing that even though they have been convicted of a crime, they are still valued members of society during and after the process of justice has been completed. Instead of a life destroyed by years separated from society within a harsh and violent prison, the offender agrees to carry out actions to right their wrongs (restoring social balance) per an arrangement with their victim, as facilitated by a court appointed mediator, and is then welcomed fully back into a forgiving society.
Grant Tietjen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, IA. His general research interests include criminology with a focus on mass-incarceration, class inequality, criminological theory, and pathways to correctional/post-correctional education. You can find a radio interview about restorative justice with Dr. Tietjen here.