Richard Rohr, in his new book on the Trinity (The Divine Dance) says that a paradigm shift becomes necessary when the old structure, the previous paradigm, has become so full of holes and “patchwork fixes” that it no longer holds together. It is then that a new way becomes possible.
One of those paradigms which has been patched and puttied so many times that it is barely holding together is our criminal justice system – the way we treat those that live outside societal norms and standards.
Limited resources and programs has left the criminal justice system, in many cases, as the only response to the many social issues: trauma, economic disparities, unemployment, race, and inequities, etc. As the old adage goes, when all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. Even after all the money spent on prisons and jails, the social ills still plague our communities. It has become obvious that the criminal justice system is not equipped to respond to the needs of those who have been isolated and marginalized for decades.
We need only to consider the growing tension between the police and communities of color. The fear and mistrust between the police and community is only one example of a system that is ill-equipped and unable to respond. For far too long, the police and the courts are called upon to not only to keep us safe, but to cure the social ills that we face as a nation. That it is failing says more about our resistance to change and our unwillingness to confront the real issues than about the system itself. Police and courts were never supposed to deal with trauma.
How did it come to be that our police and our courts are now expected to deal with all the trauma in the lives of people and communities?
Terrance is a young man who has been removed from his home and placed in a secure institution – a detention center of sorts. He is there because he violated his probation order of house arrest. While the courts have been clear, he regularly violates that order – often times to come to the Precious Blood Center. At his last court date, after a month or more in the detention center, he was placed in a secure group home.
However, the underlying issues that cause his violation are not criminal, but family. His family is overwhelmed and stressed beyond their means. The family home is not a suitable place; it does not provide for the needs of this young man. It would be easy to merely blame the family for not living up to their responsibilities – and there is some truth to that – or a system that does not care, also some truth, but the real issue is the lack of societal support and services. As a community and society, we are not providing the necessary support nor structure for many of our youth. When the family structure fails, for whatever reason, there should be a supportive community that steps up.
The singular response to Terrance’s struggles has been to place him on house arrest. While the courts agree that this repeated sentencing does not get to the real issues, they cannot shift their mindset. So they get the same results!
As a society we have to admit that we have failed to provide a safe and nurturing environment for Terrance. A criminal justice system cannot respond to issues of trauma and joblessness.
Restorative Justice sees beyond the broken law and seeks to understand and respond to the underlying issues. It is said that if you go back far enough in any of our cultures, our elders sat in a circle and pondered how to respond to the needs of the community or village. A restorative justice practice understands that the real issue with Terrance violating his house arrest is not a disregard of the law, but of a home that is neither nurturing nor safe.
We can point fingers and blame a community for its failure; we can point fingers and blame the police for its disregard for youth of color – or we can seek to come together and work to build a more restorative community.
The public discourse in our country reflects a nation that seeks change. We can double-down on a failed punitive response or embrace a more restorative response that, at its core, seeks to build bridges and repair broken and strained relationships.
I hope the paradigm shift that Richard Rohr speaks of allows for a new approach to the many issues that plague our country. I hope, too, that we, as the church, are not on the sidelines merely watching as things unfold but are agents of change.