Group Favors Restitution over Prison Terms

By Witham, Larry | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

Group Favors Restitution over Prison Terms


Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


A new "restorative justice" movement that promotes redressing harm to victims with restitution rather than meting out punishment for crime has gained respect in state criminal-justice systems and among federal crime-busters.

"The public policy perspective you bring to bear can be vitally important," drug czar Barry McCaffrey told the first National Forum on Restorative Justice yesterday.

He said that the "minimum life sentence" prosecutors use on small-time drug sellers is counterproductive, and that making offenders pay back their debt to society can have longer-term benefits.

"We've got a failed social strategy," Gen. McCaffrey said.

And he endorsed the use of religious ministry for drug addicts who first need medical treatment. "Many of us believe the little `s' could be replaced by the big `S,' " he said, referring to "spiritual" treatment programs.

In its 25th year, Justice Fellowship has cases of restorative justice working, has states trying it out and has gained friends in the Justice Department. Justice Fellowship, a branch of Prison Fellowship ministry, is the conference sponsor.

Still, the idea of allowing victims to meet their victimizer and to play a role in deciding the penalty faces a widespread "tough on crime" attitude in the public.

This "no mercy" approach to crime works in elections, so legislators run on it and prosecutors use victims' rights sentiment to gain more power to convict and lock up suspects, said Pat Nolan, president of Prison Fellowship.

"Victims are just more useful props for the prosecution," he said.

On tough penalties for minor offenders, he said, "It's important to look legislators in the eye and say, `How can you be a Christian and support some of these policies? …

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