JUSTeach Newsletter

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March 2007

social justice education

But let justice roll down like waters…Amos 5:24

 

Does justice roll like a river through the United States? Asked to name an injustice, most of us would find it easy to come up with several concrete examples from our own lives, and, in most cases, others would understand and probably agree with our examples. But what if we were asked to define justice? And to give concrete examples of justice? Would we find we agreed on the meaning of the word itself? Or its application in concrete examples taken from our own culture? It is often easier to define injustice than it is to define justice. Can Catholic social teaching help us in our search to identify justice? What is justice? Is it punitive? Restorative? Vengeful? Merciful? Who are the stakeholders? What is God’s role in the practice of justice? What questions about justice does our faith lead us to ask of ourselves and our society? This month’s JUSTeach will help you lead discussions of justice in your classroom using the core values of Catholic social teaching. Our use of the word justice is not confined to the criminal court system. Our sense of justice is rooted in every heart, every household and every institution including our churches and our schools. Its meaning is played out in our community, our state, our country and on a global basis every day in each and every one of our relationships. Yet, it is hard to say what it is! The purpose of the following article is to help your students articulate their vision of justice and to learn how to ask questions about the way justice is viewed and applied in our country at various levels.


Howard Zehr (see resources for Little Book of Restorative Justice) speaks of looking at justice through two lenses: restorative (or healing) and retributive (punishing). A restorative vision of justice has “three pillars” according to Zehr: it encourages the active participation of those who are directly impacted and who therefore “have a stake” in a specific incident whether the victim, the offender, or the community at large. The persons harmed receive the focus, their needs and healing are the starting point, not the State’s need to prosecute and sentence because its rules were broken. It stresses the need for the offender to take responsibility and to recognize that relationships must be healed. Restorative justice can involve healing circles of stakeholders, conferences, mediation, and community input or some other way to share the stories of those involved but the primary obligation rests on the offender taking responsibility and being held accountable for the harm done. It is not a way to let someone avoid accountability or reparation. Part of the healing process may go beyond the incident of crime and involve identifying root causes of crime in our society. Even when no offender has been identified, the focus on the harm done to the victim still must be addressed .The overall focus of the practice of justice in the United States has been punitive although the movement to incorporate elements of restorative justice continues to grow. How can Catholic social teaching help us to analyze the various approaches.

 

The resources listed at the end of the article will help you to prepare for the following discussion activity.

 

Classroom Discussion

Materials needed:

-A copy of the core values of Catholic social teaching (CST) if your students are unfamiliar with them (available at http://www.paxjoliet.org/justeach/justeach2.html )

 

-Concrete examples of how justice is carried out in our country. Use some of the stories in the resources at the end of this article or collect stories from local news sources. For instance, a recent news item tells the story of a woman who threw a cup of ice into a car after the car cut her off in traffic for the second time. Fortunately no one was hurt. The woman’s children were in the back seat, her pregnant sister in labor was in the front seat and the woman’s husband was serving in Iraq. The jury sentenced her to two years in prison! Is this justice? The judge overrode the jury and placed her on probation. Was the original sentence too harsh? What other measures might have been taken? The victims of the offense were horrified at the severity of the original sentence. Should they have been more involved in the process? Were other people driving on the expressway that day at risk as well? Do we have other options for persons whose anger takes control on our roads? What options are there?

-Perhaps some hypothetical incidents related to school issues would get the discussion moving as well.

 

Choose one of the stories to begin discussion explaining that we are going to use the seven core values of CST to discuss the story and those involved in the incident. Move on to others as needed or break into small groups and discuss one or two stories. Help your students to look at the situations and the people involved on all sides using the core values of CST. The following may help you lead the discussions.

 

We recognize human dignity in all those impacted by crime: victims, offenders, the families of both, and the community at large. Victims are persons, not goods or property or broken laws, although these things might be involved. As relationship is fundamental to our being made in the image of God, we should examine whether or not various definitions of justice seek to restore relationship and support the human dignity of all those involved. Statistics show that in too many cases race impacts sentencing. What does this say about the relationship of human dignity for all and our understanding of justice? How does racism contribute to the injustice of our “justice system”? In 2005, 2/3 of those in United States prisons were from racial and ethnic minorities in this country. How might this be a reflection of a deeper wound not being addressed.

 

Name those who were involved in the story. Was the offender named? The victim? What about other relationships in the community at large? Who else might have been impacted by the crime? In a robbery, all those living in a neighborhood may feel insecure or frightened. For a business, a robbery or vandalism may mean the difference between staying open and paying employees a day’s wages or closing down because of property loss or damage that prevents them from working and prevents the owner from staying in business or paying debts on time.

 

Does the story you chose give a sense that the focus of justice was an example of a punitive or restorative model of justice? Who benefited from the way justice was applied? Was the human dignity of all stakeholders upheld? Did victims have an active voice in the process? Was the process itself violent or healing in nature? Clearly we can’t allow dangerous people to continue harming others, but who decides this and how do we deal with them? In nonviolent cases, is there any attempt to involve the victims and the community at large in resolving the offense and confronting the offender? Does the attempt to practice justice ever escalate the violence in our society?

 

Catholic social teaching tells us that an option for the poor and vulnerable in our midst is always necessary. Is this evident in the details of the story? Did someone steal out of hunger? Or break a law because their mental state left them incapable of knowing right from wrong? Was the offender a juvenile whose immaturity contributed to the offense? If the offender did not have the money for a lawyer, was the court appointed lawyer capable of handling the defense? If the victim was poor or homeless, did the state put as much effort into solving the crime? A restorative approach to justice would examine root causes of crime as well as the incident itself.

 

Was the sentencing mandatory? Was it for the common good or was it to punish the offender with no thought of other stakeholders? Does a long sentence automatically mean a person will change their ways? In drug-related cases, would the offender, and in the long run the community, benefit from drug rehabilitation rather than just locking up the offender? What happens to the children of the offender? What services are there for the children of victims? What services are available in prisons and jails?

 

We are called to live in solidarity with our neighbors near and far. Do we tend to see victims and offenders as our neighbors and to accept our obligations? If we were involved in the justice process in ways other than accepting or avoiding a call to serve on a jury, would attitudes toward justice change? Susidiarity is another concept discussed in Catholic social teaching. Problems are best solved where they occur, not by a “top-down” approach by the higher levels of governmental bodies. This approach allows for communities to encourage healthy organizations to handle local needs, to encourage the sense of the common good to merge with the sense of human dignity and the good in each person. Root causes of crime are most easily identified and addressed at the base or root level of society.

 

Do we as faithful citizens have obligations or responsibilities regarding the victim and the offender? Our community?

Could some offenses be dealt with more effectively, more restoratively, outside of the courts and jails? Name them and give your reasons for answering yes or no.

 

Did the offender take responsibility for the offense? Does the offender have an obligation to enter into healing broken relationships?

 

A restorative approach to justice leads to greater participation by those impacted. While it is true that laws and/or rules were broken, the real harm was done to the persons involved and this harm must be repaired.

 

Challenges for students

 

-Amos tells us that “justice rolls like a river…” What metaphors would you propose for the state of our criminal justice system and the underlying cultural beliefs that support it?

 

-Scripture abounds with references to justice. Some of them even seem contradictory. Research passages relating to justice whether the word justice is used or implied. The Little Book of Biblical Justice listed below is an excellent resource.

 

-Can we define justice in practice without looking at the meaning of mercy, love, and peace? How are they interrelated? Can you find any passages in scripture that speak of the relationship?

 

-Do citizens have the responsibility of naming and fixing broken systems? Would a restorative justice system involve more communities in directly addressing the deep rooted problems in our society? Why or why not?

 

-We have laws creating a separate system for juvenile offenders? Is this a positive? What might the benefits be? Are there any drawbacks?

 

-Should juvenile offenders be allowed to come back into the school system? What might you need to know before answering this question?

 

-If you were a victim of a crime, how important would it be for you to have input into the justice process? How might it aid your healing? Do you think some crimes might be too horrendous for the victim or their family to even consider entering into the justice process?

 

-Why should we care if offenders recognize and mend their broken relationships within the community?

-If you could interview both victim and offender in any given case, what questions would you ask? What other stakeholders would you want to interview?

 

-Do you think it is possible to have a restorative justice system or do we need to combine our visions of various types of justice? Will there always be an overlapping of views?

 

-Are you familiar with the Truth and Reconciliation Councils in South Africa or any Healing Circles in your community or elsewhere? Do you think that “telling your story” helps in healing? Do you know the history of healing circles in Native American tradition? The Little Book of Circle Processes listed in the resources is a good source of information on the healing circle process.

 

-In terms of school incidents, should some offenses be automatically ruled an expulsion? Who decides? Does your school have a restorative mediation committee? Does it work? What might make it better? If you don’t have one, could you start one? Who would you ask to serve on the committee? How would they get training?

 

-Does your county have a restorative justice alternative for youth? If yes, who is involved? Is it having any success? If not, how might you encourage formation of such a program?

 

-Write a prayer service for all those involved in seeking justice: the victim(s), offender(s) and the greater community.

 

Resources

www.goodbooks.com The Little Books of Justice and Peacebuilding offer several books on restorative justice including The Little Book of Biblical Justice, The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools, The Little Book of Circle Processes and The Little Book of Restorative Justice. The books are inexpensive, well written and offer concise, concrete introductions to their various topics.

 

http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/criminal.htmResponsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice a statement of the Catholic Bishops of the United States

 

http://www.coc.org/pdfs/ej/prisonquiz.pdf For those with access to the Center of Concerns Education for Justice site, this interactive quiz on prisons is packed with information and includes discussion questions at the end as well as excerpts from various church documents.

 

http://www.restorativejustice.org/resources/docs/pranis scroll down to “Guiding Principles” in this article by Kay Pranis

 

http://www.ccky.org/Pastoral%20Resources/Southern%20Bishops/A%20Time%20to%20Heal%20April%202004.pdfI Have Come to Heal…” Restorative Justice Catholic Bishops of the South Pastoral on Restorative Justice

 

http://www.loyno.edu/twomey/blueprint/vol_lvi/No-05_Jan_2003.htmlRetribution and Restoration: The Two Paths, Elizabeth Linehan, Loyola University New Orleans Vol LV1, No 5, January 2003. This article provides a nice discussion and offers real life examples of crimes, offenders, victims and the application of justice providing teachers more background before leading discussion.

 

www.restorativejustice.org Explore this site for various approaches and discussion ideas.

 

http://www.sd35.bc.ca/links/resaction.htmRestorative Action: A Community Approach to Conflict in Secondary Schools Do you have such a program in your school? Here’s an example of what can be done.

 

http://education.state.mn.us/MDE/groups/safehealthy/documents/report/002552.pdf Minnesota Department of Education offers a 20 page manual you can download Respecting Everyone’s Ability to Solve Problems: Restorative Measures. It contains examples of the type of incidents handled, background on why a restorative measure is better for the victim, offender, school and community and an easily followed plan to establish such a program in your own school.

 

http://www.voiceofthepoor.org/position/Restorative%20Justice%20Approved9-2-06.pdf St. Vincent DePaul Society publication Position Statement on Restorative Justice: Recommendations by the Voice of the Poor Committee Council of the United States

The section on page 2 addressing principles of restorative justice provides a good overview of the principles to share with students. The section on Recommendations for Councils and Conferences on page 3 is not directed at students but some of it could be utilized in your classroom discussion and in an action plan such as making suggestions to your parish liturgy committee or parish council.

 

http://www.restorativejustice.org/editions/2004/April/JusticeThatHealsThe site contains a synopsis of the documentary A Justice that Heals and gives the site where you may order the video. Although not targeting the issue of restorative justice explicitly, this documentary offers a moving look at reconciliation between a young offender and his victim’s mother and the efforts of a local pastor to involve the church community in the healing process.

 

www.paxjoliet.org/advocacy/resjus.html  Moral Principles and Foundations for Restorative Justice: A Call for Criminal and Juvenile Justice Reform in Illinois from the Catholic Diocese of Joliet, Peace and Social Ministry Ministry, a Working Paper. This  6 page resource provides a concise, easy to read overview of the model of Restorative Justice.

 

As you work to instill a sense of justice in your students and encourage them to be the peace we so desperately need in our world, may your classroom and your schools become places where:

“Love and truth will meet;

justice and peace and will kiss.

Truth will spring from the earth;

Justice will look down from the heaven.” Ps 85: 11-12

 

Peace and blessings, Colette Wisnewski

 

NOTE: Want to learn more about Restorative Justice? Come to a seminar on April 14th. For information click here.