Restorative justice for juvenile offenders
Aug 15, 2012
The recent Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama, which concerns the imposition of life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders, offers an important opportunity for people of faith to revisit our civic responsibilities with respect to children and youth.
....People of faith ought to bring the principles outlined in the amicus brief to the whole of our civic life, particularly to how we deal with juvenile offense. First, while noting that juveniles "are still developing and maturing," Christians ought to examine whether our religious and civic lives support or hinder youth development. Mono-causal arguments that blame the breakdown of the nuclear family fall short, virtually abdicating any responsibility of the larger community for the well-being of children and youth. Indeed, while parental responsibility remains preeminent, what do we make of Joseph and Mary leaving the temple without Jesus, because "they assumed him to be in the company?” Long before Hilary Clinton, the parents of Jesus functioned in a society where "it takes a village to raise a child." For example, viewing youth ministry as a venue only for specialists gives many churchgoers a convenient "out" in taking responsibility for youth development as a community concern.
Secondly, the common religious virtues of mercy, compassion and forgiveness stand in stark contrast to popular theologies focused on individual personal development, whether in terms of psychological wellness, financial prosperity or formulaic problem solving. Mercy, compassion and forgiveness are, by definition, interpersonal values. However, these are difficult to maintain when Christians reflect the larger culture's focus on the individual.
Lastly, restorative justice, also an interpersonal ethic, challenges what T. Richard Snyder calls "the culture of revenge." Our flesh and the world mask their cries for revenge in the cloak of "bringing people to justice." Christians, however, should understand the difference between justice and revenge and seek the highest form of "making things right," which requires efforts toward restoration and redemption.
The Court's decision enables us all to make religious and civic investment in youth development a priority consistent with the best of our faith tradition. It affirms the possibility of restoration in certain cases, which should be monitored carefully. But it also calls us to a renewed level of responsibility on the preventative side of the ledger.