By Molly Borgese
The United States currently holds the largest per-capita prison population ratio, more so than any other Western nation. In recent years there has been a swell in the number of violent crimes committed and a severe increase in the number of convictions.
Currently, there are an estimated 700 adults incarcerated per 100,000 adults living among the U.S. population. As alarming as these statistics sound, the general population seems unaware of the situation we face as a nation. What should be done post-incarceration? Just this past Friday, Sept. 28, the University hosted the conference “Restorative Justice in Action: Challenges for Philadelphia” in Connelly Center.
The event was sponsored by a slew of reputable and influential organizations who work closely with the greater Philadelphia region, including the University’s Office for Mission and Ministry, Augustinian Defenders of the Rights of the Poor (ADROP), St. Joseph’s University, as well as the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. The majority of this event was organized by the University’s Center for Peace and Justice Education and the efforts of Kathryn Getek Soltis, assistant professor of Christian ethics and the center’s director.
In the works since December of 2011, this conference was a collaborative effort that hoped to call the Philadelphia area to action and awareness of the issues facing our criminal justice system. Especially intriguing were the guests present at the event. Victims, offenders and families all represented the products of restorative justice. One man, Raymond Zeigler, a Class of ’09 alumnus, sparked a special interest within the crowd. Once an incarcerated adult, Zeigler finished his education in eight years, while serving his sentence. He left the audience with a memorable and powerful message: Restorative justice is the language of the cross. It encourages forgiveness and healing, because like those who crucified Jesus, we all “do not know what we do.” Beginning with a keynote address by current distinguished professor of law at Marquette University and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, the conference kicked off with some personal experiences. With her impressive career in the United States Legal and Judicial System, Geske addressed the issues she has encountered while working with victims, offenders and each of the families involved. She encouraged the importance of building interactions between the two sides affected, while also explaining the influence that the restorative justice field can provide.
As the current director of Marquette University’s Restorative Justice Initiative, Geske described the many difficulties states face in establishing permanent programs that could benefit all those affected by violent crime. Following the keynote address was a panel that addressed the challenges involving healing, faith and forgiveness. Moderated by Sister Elizabeth Linehan, R.S.M., the panel consisted of family members of both offenders and victims of violent crime who described personal, devastating experiences and the road to remorse and recovery through faith. Panelists for the event included: Victoria Greene, the founder/executive director of Every Murder is Real, an organization that educates the community of Philadelphia about drug-related homicides by honoring her son Emir Greene, who was a victim of senseless violence, Alice Sedden, the sister to an incarcerated brother sentenced to life without parole, Father Shinn, the pastor of St. Andrew’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties since 1985, who was the victim of a violent kidnapping and assault that nearly killed him in 1995 and Michael Whittington, an involved member of a violent robbery attempt that eventually killed one victim.
However, before the victim passed, he and Whittington worked together in educating the community about violence, especially after Michael’s younger brother was killed at 22 years of age. Overall, the panel left the participants with a sense of empowerment, encouraging triumph and proactive movement in spite of devastating loss and tragedy. Throughout the afternoon, different sessions took place involving various organizations in the community that promoted restorative justice in everyday life. Sessions included, “Children of Inmates, Children of Victims, Children of God: Prison Ministry/ADROP program,” facilitated by Father Paul Morrissey, O.S.A., pastoral councilor and prison chaplin of Philadelphia Prisons and Adeodatus Prison Ministry, “Federal Reentry Court,” “Mural Arts Program,” “Inside Out,” “Victim Advocacy” and “Community College of Philadelphia” with Tara Timberman and program participants.
Not only was this conference powerful in the sense that it informed the campus of the severe, personal consequences that violent crimes can inflict, but it also provided a sense of hope for the judicial system and the support given to those who have lost their faith and will to live amidst horrible tragedy. It was a multifaceted endeavor that explored the different angles to every crime: the victim versus the offender. The organizations involved in the day’s conference not only recognize and support the victim and victim’s family, but also provide services for the offender and his or her family.
Restorative Justice as a whole encompasses all people involved and remembers the golden rule of humanity: although we make mistakes, we should still be treated as human beings with kindness and love. As the closing remarks were made, Shinn reminded the audience that people who do bad things can still transform for the better and maybe even one day become saints. Although his offenders broke almost all of his ribs, beat him to the point of unconsciousness and finally shot him three times, Shinn urged the judge to give the three offenders lesser sentences. A powerful and insightful man, he encouraged a very hard lesson in forgiveness: we are all created in the image and likeness of God, therefore we should show compassion.