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Redemption, forgiveness, restorative justice: Whatever it’s called, it must be for ALL

By Sandy . . . There’s a new phrase in town, and it’s catching on like wildfire.

April 29th is the start date for a new CNN program based on this phrase. It is called The Redemption Project, and you don’t have to read very far before – there it is: restorative justice.

It is based on the reality that the criminal justice system does only half of the job and often leaves things worse than they were before.

Like many “new” things, it isn’t really all that new.

Schools, industry, and civil litigation have utilized the concept for decades with peer or conflict mediation, bringing together two opposing parties to work out their differences by learning to understand the other’s point of view. Its primary tools are empathy and compassion. It will never work 100% of the time, but it is effective often enough to justify its availability as an option in virtually all adversarial situations. And in the criminal justice system, when it does work, it seems to work better than anything else in restoring offenders and healing victims.

It is an initiative among others in the ACLU’s arsenal in its “Smart Justice” program, a program taking hold in every state and designed to offer effective and realistic solutions to our serious over-incarceration problem.

Tim Ryan, a contender for the next presidential election, states that when it comes to meaningful criminal justice reform, “. . . mindfulness and compassion must be a part of the national conversation.” Mindfulness and compassion are cornerstones of restorative justice programs.

When it comes to extending these to persons who have been convicted of sexual crimes, however, America’s track record is abysmally poor. For virtually all programs offering meaningful, positive reentry initiatives for felons, those who advocate for ethical treatment of sexual offense convictees are so used to seeing, “Convicted sex offenders are not eligible,” that we have almost adopted a “So what else is new?” stance.

In early April “One Standard of Justice,” our Connecticut affiliate, offered a free two-day restorative justice seminar. The primary speakers, Jill Levenson and Alissa Ackerman, are heavyweights in the academic/research/criminal justice arenas. 1,500 invitations were issued to members of the media, treatment providers, victims’ advocates, legislators, and law enforcement personnel in Connecticut and surrounding states. Only a handful of them attended. They made it clear that they were not interested in restorative justice for anyone convicted of a sexual crime.

Why not? These professionals surely know that, as a group, the reoffense rate of those who have sexual crime convictions is far, far lower than that of any other group except those who commit murder. They are also aware that the umbrella of sexual offenses, an umbrella that requires, unlike any other crime, including murder, a publicly accessible registration database for all, covers many, many offenses that put the former perpetrators at virtually no risk for any harm to the public. Depending on the state, consensual teenage sex and “sexting,” public urination, and juvenile curiosity and horseplay involving any degree of nudity or often just touching are only a few of these.

It is time for this discrimination to cease. It is past time for those who are on a sexual offense registry to be seen as persons who committed a crime and deserve, along with those who have committed any one of a large variety of other crimes, an equal opportunity for redemption.

NARSOL is hosting its 11th annual conference in Houston, Texas June 6 – 9. Many of the presentations and workshops will center around restorative justice themes.

NARSOL challenges treatment providers and victims’ advocates, legislators and law enforcement to attend this conference. We almost guarantee that you will walk away with greater insight and understanding of the direction that criminal justice must go for everyone if it is to be any kind of justice at all.

It is time for the concepts of compassion and restoration to apply to all who need it. There is no legal justification for excluding those with sexual convictions. There is no moral justification.

There is no justification whatsoever.

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Sandy is communications director for NARSOL, editor-in-chief of the Digest, and a writer for the Digest and the NARSOL website. Additionally, she participates in updating and managing the website and assisting with a variety of organizational tasks.