Under a nearly full moon shining through stray clouds, a 19-year-old drunk driver killed two teenagers one summer night years ago in Austin. He was arrested, pleaded guilty at his trial, and was sentenced to 40 years in the state penitentiary system. When the incarcerating bullet-proof steel door slammed shut behind him, was that the end of the story?
Retributive justice is an important component of our social contract, aptly described by the phrase "You do the crime, you do the time." The state, represented by legislators, cops, lawyers and judges, courts, jails, and state and federal prison systems, takes responsibility for assessing guilt and punishment when its laws are violated. Crime, therefore, is understood principally as an offense against the state.
Have you heard of the term "restorative justice"? In contrast, restorative justice theory holds that the person violated by a criminal act, not the state, is the principal victim. Restitution, consequently, is a relational transaction between an offender and their victim.
Some crime victims want no further involvement with an offender beyond the court's decision rendered by the state-sponsored retributive justice process. Other crime victims, however, have a need for more. "The opportunity for a crime victim to find hope and resolution by repairing the harm done by crime — beyond what happens in the courtroom" is a good working definition of restorative justice.
Jesus instructs his disciples in Matthew 18 to deal with conflict face to face. If a sin or some type of violation splinters a relationship between two people, if at all possible, they are to seek resolution of the issue face to face. If necessary, other community members can help the two move toward rapprochement.
And where did Jesus, who was Jewish, learn this type of practice? From his own tradition that seeks to maintain an offender's status of inclusion in the community, and commands offenders to offer restitution to their crime victims (Leviticus 6 and Numbers 5 are clear examples) to help preserve the well-being of the community.
The ninth of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous distills these biblical principles: "Make direct amends to people you have harmed wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."
From the guts of a Texas prison five years after that summer night drunk-driving accident, the offender met face to face with the mother and father of one of the teenagers he killed. The program that facilitated this meeting is called Victim-Offender Dialogue, and the Texas criminal justice system was the first in the nation to offer such a program to victims of violent crime. Importantly, only crime victims can initiate the implementation of this program (which includes guided preparation), and a participating offender must admit complete fault and guilt in their crime, with no expectation of favor from the Texas parole board. This program is administered by the Victim Services Division of the Texas criminal justice system, which seeks to serve the needs of crime victims first and foremost.
The Victim-Offender Dialogue program is an example of high-level restorative justice practice. Other restorative practices are becoming more common, including "circle conferences" at middle schools that attempt to mitigate bullying and other offenses by bringing adversaries face to face in guided mediation.
There's much more to the story of this Austin drunk-driving wreck and participation in the Victim-Offender Dialogue program by the offender and the parents of one of his victims. The development of the program — an incredible story in and of itself — and what the program did specifically for these three participants is the focus of my new book "There is a Balm in Huntsville," which will be published in April.
We live in an age of hyper-partisan divide where the demonization of others is accepted behavior and mistrust is rampant. Can purposeful encounters between adversaries bear fruit for peace and understanding? Many who have experienced the healing ways of restorative justice practices answer the question with a resounding "Yes."
T. Carlos Anderson is a pastor and author. He can be reached at www.tcarlosanderson.com.