by Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach

Our criminal justice system is broken. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As many as two-thirds of those released from prison are rearrested within three years. And African-Americans and Latinos are far more likely to be imprisoned than whites.

Problems of this scope will require a seismic change. What do we as Christians have to offer to the debate on criminal justice reform?

Mennonites have been leaders in promoting restorative justice models in communities across the country. Restorative justice seeks to address the needs of victim and offender. Its concepts resonate with the biblical vision of shalom, restoring broken relationships within communities.

Following are some relevant biblical principles connected to restorative justice, as articulated by numerous writers:

  • All people are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Because of this, they are worthy of dignity and respect, whether “victim” or “offender.”
  • God’s grace can transform anyone (Ephesians 2:5-10), including perpetrators of crime. No one is beyond the reach of God’s mercy.
  • God breaks down hostility between opposing groups and brings peace (Ephesians 2:11-22). Rather than perpetuating barriers and stereotypes, we must actively work to dismantle them.
  • We are called to the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). This work is rooted in God’s reconciliation of us as sinners.
  • God’s love and justice are intertwined, not opposing realities (Psalm 33:5, Jeremiah 9:23-24). Therefore our love for another should bring a natural concern for justice. This justice should be sought with mercy and compassion, not vengeance.

Not surprisingly, restorative justice is also more effective than the current punitive system. Studies have shown that restorative justice makes offenders less likely to repeat a crime, reduces victims’ desire for revenge, and is more cost-effective.

While not a panacea for addressing the many concerns with the current criminal justice system, a more restorative approach would go a long way in addressing the needs of individuals and communities harmed by crime.

The rest of this Memo develops this idea in much more detail, particularly as Congress considers a thorough review of the criminal justice system. We also hear about several creative ways in which Mennonite Central Committee workers address crime and justice concerns in their own communities.

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