By Sue Allen
STARKVILLE – On Wednesday, February 27, Catholic Charities Office of Parish Social Ministry will again host a Catholic Day at the Capitol in Jackson. This day is an opportunity for Catholics to interact with their legislators as well as learn about key topics of interest from the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching. The topic this year is reform aimed at restorative justice – especially in the criminal justice system. The diocesan Faith in Action Team (FIAT) works for months to organize this event annually.
Laws in the United States and here in Mississippi follow the traditional legal system inherited in part from English common law, which is adversarial and retributive in nature. That is, when a lawsuit is filed or a crime is thought to have been committed, a victim, through his lawyer, brings charges of wrongdoing against an offender, who, usually with the help of his lawyer, makes a defense. The two sides present their cases before a neutral judge and/or jury which makes a determination as to guilt. If found guilty, the offender is sentenced to an appropriate punishment. In Retributive Justice, punishment, retribution or retaliation is considered morally justifiable if the punishment is proportional to the offense. Even in this system, factors such as criminal intent, and competence are supposed to be taken into consideration. The mentally ill, intellectually disabled and children are not to be subject to punishment, although compensation of victims is still sought. Under a retributive system, individuals found to be guilty are required to be punished, to “pay their debt to society,” usually by “doing time” in facilities in which inhumane conditions exacerbate the problem, at great expense to society and which are ineffective as a deterrent to crime.
Restorative justice follows the model presented in the gospel and is more focused on restoring the community, and individual relationships to where they were before a crime was committed. In a restorative justice system, the truth about what happened and who is responsible is still sought. But the search for truth does not end there. Restoration of the health, wellbeing and/or material possessions of the victim – a relief of the victim’s spiritual and emotional suffering is sought, but not in a way which diminishes the dignity of the offender, who is helped to return to a condition of wholeness, holiness and reconciled participation in the community when that is possible. Christians are commanded to deal with injury, real or perceived, in ways that are loving, and non-judgmental, that is with forgiveness and mercy. And so real opportunities to ask for forgiveness and to be forgiven are provided when possible. This is truly a way to see and implement justice according to Gospel principles. It is also an approach to justice which happens to result in a number of other positive outcomes such as a reduction is recidivism, a reduction in the the overwhelming cost of running overcrowded prisons, finding and addressing the root causes of crime, and the of strengthening of families and communities as a whole.
Catholic Day at the Capitol will cover several aspects of this topic: prison reform, re-entry, ending the the death penalty and how to practice restorative justice in families, parishes and communities. Speakers include John Koufos, national director of reentry initiatives for Right on Crime and Haley M. Brown, Oktibbeha County prosecutor and law professor at Mississippi State University. The day starts at 9 a.m. at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle and wraps up with networking at 3 p.m. It will include Mass and lunch as well as a visit to the capitol building. Registration will be available soon on the Catholic Charities of Jackson website. Look for more detail on the topic of restorative justice in upcoming editions of Mississippi Catholic.
(Sue Allen is the coordinator for the Office of Parish Social Ministries for Catholic Charities of Jackson.)