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Redefining Restorative Justice
Reconciliation and Restoration of Rights
By Rima Vesely-Flad
Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching your children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having your legs cut off, and then being condemned for being a cripple. . . It means the ache and anguish of living in so many situations where hopes unborn have died. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Striving for reconciliation without advocating for human rights diminishes the potential for genuine growth and transformation within our communities. People of faith supportive of imprisoned or formerly incarcerated men and women have been educated to understand their ministry as “Restorative Justice”: helping individuals coming out of prison to reconcile with the persons they have hurt as well as the communities in which they reside. This ministry is of utmost importance to the growth of formerly incarcerated persons and the neighborhoods to which they return. And yet Restorative Justice must mean more than interpersonal relationships: it must incorporate the “Restoration of Rights,” advocacy to eliminate legal discrimination experienced by individuals with criminal convictions.
Restoration of Rights recognizes that present-day slavery is, in fact, legal when a person is imprisoned – corporations and states derive profit from the coerced labor of incarcerated people – and that mass incarceration of African Americans is a direct result of racism rather than an inherent deficiency on the part of the incarcerated individual.
Within Restoration of Rights, people of faith take into account the historical context of mass imprisonment and the present-day legal discrimination confronting individuals after incarceration. Restoration of Rights incorporates the history of Slave Codes, laws which regulated the behavior of enslaved and free blacks. Slave Codes were abolished with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which states: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Restoration of Rights recognizes that present-day slavery is, in fact, legal when a person is imprisoned – corporations and states derive profit from the coerced labor of incarcerated people – and that mass incarceration of African Americans is a direct result of racism rather than an inherent deficiency on the part of the incarcerated individual.
In 1866, a Civil Rights Bill declared former slaves to be free citizens with “the same right . . . as is enjoyed by white citizens” to take basic legal actions, such as making contracts, suing, giving evidence, and inheriting, purchasing, and selling property. And yet Southern states began to erode the civil rights of African Americans by passing Black Codes, which denied African Americans the right to vote, excluded them from many occupations, and in some places, forbade them to appear in any other role than as servants. In some states it was illegal to be without a job: vagrancy was punished by a fine of up to $50 (a huge sum at the time) and imprisonment. If those convicted could not pay the fine, the sheriff could hire them out to anyone who offered to pay it for them. Convict leasing – a system in which the state leased out convicts to private business owners, who then worked them harshly, often in chain gangs under threat of dogs, whips, and guns – was instituted. Lynching and disproportionate conviction rates resulted in mass terrorization and incarceration of black people.
The twentieth-century civil rights movement altered the legal context in which black people lived. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on race and resulted in integration and social mobility. Yet millions of impoverished black people housed in decaying urban and rural communities were still denied economic, educational, and legal resources. The result today is mass incarceration. What was once a plantation system is now a prison system, with ownership of people transferred from individuals to the state. More than half of people in U.S. prisons are African American. They come from the nation's most impoverished communities, lacking adequate consultation through the process of arrest and conviction, and are ultimately rendered second-class citizens once released from prison. Employment and voting, two primary means through which individuals participate formally in society, are broadly denied individuals once they are released.
[M]illions of impoverished black people housed in decaying urban and rural communities were still denied economic, educational, and legal resources. The result today is mass incarceration. What was once a plantation system is now a prison system, with ownership of people transferred from individuals to the state.
Only one-half of African American men in New York City were employed in 2004. More than half of New York State's prison population is African American. After years of being subject to the violence of the prison system, they are released into communities as “offenders,” “felons,” and “convicts.” Furthermore, when they apply for jobs, employers as well as the state deny them employment based on a broad interpretation of “good moral character” – a phrase used in state law – that is defined solely by the fact of a criminal conviction. Thus African Americans can be denied plumbing, barber, and construction licenses based on a felony record, even if their crime has nothing to do with the license that they seek.
As people of faith inspired by the legacy of our role in the civil rights movement, we must wake up to the reality unfolding before our eyes. This is our civil rights issue. We cannot commit to Restorative Justice without committing to Restoration of Rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated clearly the result of discriminatory laws: “[Being a Negro] means having your legs cut off, and then being condemned for being a cripple.” In the twenty-first century, people of color in impoverished communities have their legs cut off through poverty, unemployment, and discrimination. With inadequate legal resources and minimum sentence drug laws, African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants of color are imprisoned with lengthy sentences. When home in the community, they are discriminated against because of their imprisonment.
Restorative Justice principles focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment, on reconciliation rather than separation. Yet we must expand our understanding of Restorative Justice to incorporate advocacy for the Restoration of Rights. We have enormous political power as communities of faith. As we welcome formerly incarcerated persons into our communities, we must also advocate to revoke discriminatory laws that are a modern-day version of Black Codes.
We must advocate for currently and formerly incarcerated people with love, intelligence, wisdom, and compassion. Like the loving father in the Christian Gospel story of the Prodigal Son, we must do all that we can to restore individuals coming home to the full status of “beloved son.” This demands the elimination of discrimination as well as a commitment to interpersonal relationships. Although the dominant messages of our society indicate otherwise, we have the capacity to transform our communities. As people of faith, we have the teachings that command us to eliminate discrimination, standing on a foundation of justice and love.
Rima Vesely-Flad is director of the Interfaith Coalition of Advocates for Reentry and Employment (ICARE) and an instructor at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, N.Y. She lives in New York City, and may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .