Last year, as part of my work with the archdiocesan Office for Social Justice, I was part of a committee organizing a provincial Restorative Justice conference.
Each year in late November there is a week designated across Canada as Restorative Justice Week. Restorative justice is an approach that seeks to restore relationships between the offender, the victim and community. This approach is rooted in truth telling, accountability and the strengthening of community relationships.
The keynote speaker was Pierre Allard, who served as a prominent Canadian prison chaplain for over 30 years. He spoke of a transformative time in his life when his brother was violently murdered. Allard faced a decision whether to live his life as a victim seeking revenge or to embark on a restorative, transforming personal journey.
Allard's telling of his own family story was a challenging moment for me, since both my father and grandfather died as a result of criminal violence.
Issues of crime and justice are very much in the news today. A month before this conference, Bishop Gary Gordon of Whitehorse, a long-time prison chaplain, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, criticizing the federal government's policy of mandating longer prison sentences and spending billions of dollars on the construction of new prison facilities.
Gordon argues that these policies have "been repeatedly proven neither to reduce crime nor to assist victims." He points out that many of the offenders are disproportionately poor, suffering from mental illness and coming from the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups in Canadian society.
This is confirmed by Howard Sapers, the federal correctional investigator. In his 2009-10 report, Sapers says that in Canada "we are criminalizing, incarcerating and warehousing the mentally disordered in large and alarming numbers."
He estimates that over 25 per cent of male inmates present a mental health condition. The prevalence of mental illness is even higher for female inmates.
Sapers also reports that "while aboriginal people compose less than four per cent of the Canadian population, they account for 20 per cent of the total federal prison population" and 33 per cent of the federal female prison population.
This approach of the federal government can best be described as retributive justice. This retributive approach is taken to its logical conclusion in Harper's comments about his support for the death penalty in Canada.
In recent years, official Catholic teaching from the Vatican and from national bishops' conferences around the world has consistently opposed the death penalty.
Gordon moves away from an emphasis on retribution. He observes that many prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent offences. He argues for more community-based approaches including well-supervised probation, supportive housing and restorative justice approaches.
Gordon insists "public safety is enhanced through healthy communities that support individuals and families." This healthy community approach is the path currently being taken by the City of Edmonton.
Mayor Stephen Mandel commissioned a Taskforce on Community Safety. This taskforce, after a wide community consultation, published the REACH report (www.reachreport.ca). The REACH report speaks of "building a culture of community safety in Edmonton in one generation."
The REACH approach is not one of longer prison sentences and building more prisons. Rather it calls for community mobilization around three goals:
Significantly, the Alberta government has committed itself to a similar approach to public safety through the Alberta Safe Communities Initiative.
Bishop Gordon's concerns have been supported publicly by other Church leaders. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has put their collective voice behind his letter to the prime minister. The Church Council on Justice and Corrections, supported by 11 Christian denominations, attracted national headlines in the last few weeks by making Gordon's words their own.
These public, Church and community voices affirming restoration of right relationship, engaging local citizens in strengthening bonds of local community, and calling forth personal and societal responsibility, reconciliation and transformation should not come as a surprise to Canadian Catholics.
These words are grounded in the foundations of Catholic social teaching. The way we reach out and participate in the life of our local communities does matter.
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)