Restorative Justice

Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois signed legislation in July to help ex-offenders secure employment in the private sector and become productive members of society. The new law prevents criminal background checks until after an applicant is deemed qualified for a job.  “Everyone deserves a second chance when it comes to getting a job,” Governor Quinn said.

Second chances is what restorative justice is all about.  Frequently the phrase is used in the context of prisoner reentry issues and chief among those issues is trying to get a job.  Without legal protections like those adopted by Illinois we contribute to recidivism, poverty and lack of opportunity.  Ex-offenders have been punished under the law and fulfilled the retributive aspect of justice.  Continuing that retribution after the debt has been paid does not serve the ends of justice.  Rather helping restore the person to be a productive member of society furthers the ends of justice.

Remember Jean Valjean from the novel (or movie) Les Miserables?  The story is fundamentally about an ex-convict who cannot escape his past to become a productive member of society.  Each time Jean shows his papers he is denied employment and but for the intervention of Bishop Myriel, would have returned to crime.  While a story, the novel strikes at the chords of humanity.  Inspector Javer refuses to believe people can change.  He believes in retribution.  Bishop Myriel believes people can change.  He gives Jean Valjean precious silver to start a new life.  He gives him a second chance.  The story demonstrates the power of that second chance.  As Christ Followers we should be people who believe in second chances, who believe in the power of change, and who believe that one act of kindness can have significant impact.

While Jean Valjean is fictional, Sheila is not.  Sheila is a neighbor and friend of a gospel justice center in Philadelphia.  After years of frustration trying to find nursing work that would sustain herself and her five grandchildren, Sheila knew she needed to try to clean her criminal record.  With an expungement or redaction, certain arrest data and charges can be cleared from one’s record, helping many in their search for gainful employment. In the past two years, the group in Philadelphia has offered expungement services to dozens of individuals at no cost. It’s one way they help restore families in this struggling economy and show people the love of Christ.

Sheila’s life has not been easy. When she was pregnant with her first daughter, her husband was shot and paralyzed from the legs down.  It was as she watched the nurse take care of her husband on home visits that she realized she wanted to become a Certified Nursing Assistant.  At first, Sheila found inconsistent work, but past charges on her record caused her employers to let her go, even after she had proved her reliability as an employee. Sheila’s search for work became even more desperate, as she took on custody of her grandchildren. Yet nearly every employer she approached was turning her away on account of her record.  The process for expungement is complicated but with the help of a legal aid attorney, Sheila had her record wiped clean.  She was elated! She resumed her search for work with confidence. Since that time, Sheila has obtained two new nursing jobs with excellent employers. She says, “I’ve got so many jobs now! I don’t know which ones to choose!”

This is the power of restorative justice.  This is the power of understanding true justice is about restoring what is broken and righting what is wrong.  Let’s be good neighbors as we seek to restore our neighbors who need a second chance.  Let’s stop and help.  Let’s go and do likewise.