WASHINGTON, D.C. — Incarceration is “a central moral challenge of our time,” said Danielle Sered, the founding director of the restorative justice organization Common Justice.
“No nation in human history has jailed as many people as the United States has today,” she said.
Sered, speaking Oct. 29 during the Catholic Mobilizing Network’s three-day meeting on restorative justice issues, said the question now is “whether we will continue to allow this practice of mass caging to define who we are.”
She outlined four “pillars” that should “guide all of our responses to violence.”
First, Sered said, “our response to violence should be survivor-centered,” she said. “We actually rarely listen to crime survivors.”
A crime survivor herself, Sered said, “We feel fear so intrusive and all-consuming (that) we will be unable to sleep, and when we are able to sleep, we will awaken with nightmares. Our rage will make us unrecognizable not only to those we love but also to ourselves.”
While “we cannot abide the idea of going through it again” by reliving the experience at a trial and sentencing of the perpetrator, “we cannot abide the idea of someone else going through what we went through,” she added.
That led to one victim, she said, vacillating between wishing the person who attacked her would drown, or maybe burn to death, but settled on “drowning in a river of fire so I wouldn’t have to choose.”
Another victim, according to Sered, wished she could take a machete to her attacker, but thought of the grief that would come to the criminal’s mother and neighbors if he were deprived of family and community.
Second, “solutions to violence should be accountability-based,” Sered said, although society should not see “accountability as a synonym for punishment.” Perpetrators in restorative justice pledge: “I make things as right as possible … as defined by those I have hurt … and I will not cause that harm ever again.”
“It is why it is so difficult to do,” she said. “But it is the thing that transforms us.”
Many who commit violent crimes are reluctant to go to restorative justice sessions because they can’t get their hands to stop trembling at the thought of being face-to-face with the person they attacked. Apologies also are rare in their world, she added.
Sered said one 19-year-old, after the session was over, asked her, “Did I do it right?”
Third, “responses to violence should be safety driven,” she said, adding the core drivers of violence are structural in nature and rooted in inequity.
“It is lack of access to schools, lack of access to medical care, lack of access to safe housing” that are drivers, but also “shame, isolation, exposure to violence and the inability to meet one’s economic needs,” Sered noted.
The last four on her list are the same conditions they will face in prison, she said. “It’s like showing up at a fire with a tank full of gasoline.”
The fourth pillar is that responses to crime should be racially equitable — which, Sered said, “they never have been. Never.”
“We’re not talking about tweaking a system,” she added. “We are talking about building a system we have never built.”
The criminal justice system is “rife with disparities at every decision point,” Sered said, from the time of arrest to the granting of parole. “The same holds true for crime survivors,” she added, including them being “blamed for the harm they sustained” and not being “trusted as credible messengers of their own experience.”
The current system, she added, “is the grandchild of genocide and slavery.”
In a prerecorded message to conferees, Howard Zehr, considered the grandfather of restorative justice, noted how Catholics played an important role in the concept’s early days, when it was more commonly known as victim-offender reconciliation.
“The Diocese of Oakland (California) operated some pioneering programs,” Zehr said. “Also, they were engaged in the development of the original concept.” He also recalled speaking at a national conference of priests and nuns doing prison ministry where he said he got “some of the substance” for his first book on the subject, “Changing Lenses: Restorative Justice for Our Times.”
Zehr recounted when then-New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya, “a devout Catholic,” was considering commuting the death sentences for condemned prisoners in the state. Advisers were cautioning Anaya, a former state attorney general, not to do it.
By this time Zehr was chair of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, he said, and he thought, “If John Paul II said something, it would give him cover” to commute the sentences.
“In 1985, I received an invitation to meet with Pope John Paul II during one of his meditations that he does,” Zehr said. “So my wife and I flew to Rome and we met with the pope. We have a picture of the event.”
Although the pope “declined to engage” in the death penalty issue on the grounds that “he couldn’t’ interfere in the business of another country,” Zehr said, “he soon began to do that. My wife says I softened him up.”
Ten years later, in March 25, 1995, — after four years of consultations with the world’s bishops — the pope issued his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”). In it he wrote that execution is only appropriate “in cases of absolute necessity, in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. … Such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”