SAO PAULO — Mass incarceration. Racial inequality. Excessive use of force by police. Maryknoll lay missioner Joanne Blaney says these complaints, so common in the U.S., are also frequently heard in Brazil.

With more than 750,000 people currently in prison, Brazil has the third-highest incarceration rate in the world — behind only China and the U.S. The high numbers in part reflect a heavy emphasis on “law and order” coming from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

The good news is that Brazil is taking steps to address these seemingly intractable problems through a new program jointly sponsored by the U.N. Development Fund and three Brazilian organizations. The new initiative, called the Restorative Justice Network, offers training in a new paradigm and approach to crime and violence: restorative justice.

The group chosen to implement the program is the Human Rights and Popular Education Center, or CDHEP, in São Paulo, where Blaney has served on staff since 2008. Her work has included teaching restorative justice practices in prisons throughout Brazil and helping individuals and groups use those practices to address conflict.

Now she and the other members of the CDHEP team are implementing the new U.N.-sponsored project through an 18-month course that provides training, accompaniment and supervision in restorative justice practices. Participants come from 10 state supreme courts throughout Brazil and include judges, state judicial workers and community representatives. The ultimate goal for each tribunal is to establish a local center for restorative justice and have a network of people trained and able to train others in these practices.

Much of the course has moved online because of COVID-19.

Blaney explains that the penal justice system with which most people are familiar is primarily concerned with the offender and assigning punishment for crime. Conversely, restorative justice “begins with a focus on the pain and grief of the victim, who, in sharing, begins a healing process.”

That sharing may involve not only the victim and offender, but also their families, social networks and representatives of the broader community. This inclusive process reframes conflict not merely as an interaction affecting two parties, but as a disruption and injury to the community as a whole, requiring a community-based response.

Blaney defines a successful process as one in which “the traumatized victim can move forward in life, and the offender, after assuming responsibility and repairing the harm, can also reintegrate back into society.”

As a facilitator of these processes over many years, Blaney has been impressed with the transformation that often takes place in them, helping the victim to no longer see the offender as a “monster,” and helping all parties to “get in touch on a deep connective level, to the place where compassion is born.”

For example, Mariza — names of all program participants have been changed for this story — was devastated when her 20-year-old son was killed in front of her home. She was further anguished when police were dismissive, implying that her son would not have been killed if he had not been involved in criminal activity.

Mariza chose to undergo a restorative justice process led by CDHEP. Blaney recalls that as the dialogue unfolded, Rodrigo, the young man who had killed her son, offered Mariza the comfort of knowing that she had been right: her son, Paulo, had not done anything wrong.

As a “motoboy” who picked up and delivered documents for businesses and individuals, Paulo had worked in a stressful and dangerous job in São Paulo, weaving through gridlocked traffic to meet rigid delivery deadlines. Rodrigo had just been robbed by someone on a motorcycle and attacked Paulo, mistaking him for the thief.

Through the restorative process, Rodrigo began to understand the full impact of his act, accepted responsibility for his crime, and begged for forgiveness. “In that moment,” Mariza says, “I saw another young man just like my son and was able to forgive.”

This encounter changed both Mariza and Rodrigo’s lives. As part of his restitution, Rodrigo now tells his story to other at-risk youth. Mariza works with children and helps mothers whose sons have been killed or who are in prison.

There is growing evidence that restorative justice is more effective at reducing crime and violence than a system based on punishment. More than 90 empirical research studies in seven countries have affirmed the positive impact of these practices. According to one mega study, restorative justice reduced the recidivism rate by 55 percent for grave crimes as compared to the high recidivism rate in the penal system.

Blaney attributes this success in part to the fact that “violence is like an iceberg” and the penal system only deals with its tip. Restorative justice recognizes that “violence (whether psychological or physical) many times is a scream for justice.” CDHEP therefore includes analysis of levels of structural violence in their trainings.

While Blaney and her colleagues at CDHEP have been training people in restorative justice for many years, the U.N.-sponsored project integrates restorative justice into Brazil’s national system of justice.

Responses to CDHEP’s courses have been overwhelmingly positive. One participant described the training as “a revolution, almost like the invention of light.” Another said, “This course cured my soul.”

Best of all, judges and other participants in the U.N.-sponsored program seem enthusiastic about incorporating restorative justice practices into their tribunals in the future.

“This course brought us hope that there is another model (of justice) that is humane and more effective in dealing with violence and injustices,” one participant said.

Blaney, too, has been affected by the work CDHEP is doing. She says accompanying people through their journey of recovery after a crime has deepened her understanding of the paschal mystery. It has taught her that “out of pain and suffering can come hope” and “a liberating process for all, where the fire of the Spirit heals and frees up energies for the building of God’s reign.”

Armour-Hileman is the admissions manager of Maryknoll Lay Missioners. This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Voices of Compassion, the magazine of Maryknoll Lay Missioners.