After the “Guilty” verdict was announced, concluding the second of two capital murder trials, John Sage walked out to the courthouse parking lot, looked up at an empty blue sky, and asked himself, “What’s next?”

Two years prior, in 1993, Sage’s sister Marilyn was removing groceries from her car one night when two 19-year-olds came up behind her. They stabbed her with a knife several times and suffocated her with a plastic bag. Once she was dead, they stole her car to drive to a party.

When Sage heard the news of her death, he descended into a tumultuous pool of anxiety, grief, depression, and rage. The two teenagers were arrested and, after two separate capital murder trials, were both sentenced to death.

“In trying to dispel the anxiety and grief after the trials, I knew that a deepening of my spiritual life was the only answer,” Sage shared. “I started reading a lot of spiritual books, joined a Bible study, and did a lot of journaling and personal writing. It wasn’t until after four years of this type of interior work that I came to a place of forgiveness.”

With an abiding compassion for victims and those close to them (a group that also suffers tremendously but often goes unmentioned), Sage wanted to ease their pain any way he could — a pain he knew well. He compared the torment that he felt after his sister’s murder to “someone shoving a metal cable down my throat and grinding my stomach every day.”

He got involved with a group called Sycamore Tree, which brings together victims and offenders (though not the direct offenders of any of the victims) to help initiate healing for both sides. Based on the effect the ministry had on not only the victims, but the offenders as well, he felt God inviting him to start his own nonprofit. Six months later he founded Bridges To Life.

“I went through seven steps that really helped me heal: one was unconditional surrender to God’s will, then empathy, understanding of God’s love for us, acceptance of where I was and of my sister’s murder, gratitude, forgiveness, and then, lastly, going out and trying to share this with others, helping others.”

Bridges To Life uses restorative justice practices to bring healing to victims, offenders, and the surrounding community. These practices involve a systematic approach to healing individuals and communities for the purposes of restoring all those involved to flourishing as much as possible. It constitutes a practice of justice that is fundamentally based on respect for all involved in severed relationships due to criminal behavior. Sage is a supporter and partner of PLNU’s criminal justice adult degree completion program and continues to develop the program’s understanding and application of restorative justice practices.

While restorative justice, in its strictest sense, applies to circumstances that involve a victim, offender, and the surrounding community, many elements of restorative justice can be applied to help forge, remedy, and sustain relationships between peoples in all areas of society, from schools to churches to neighborhoods. It’s an approach grounded in the belief that all individuals — despite what they’ve done or what’s happened to them — are valued and worthy to be restored and made whole as much as possible.

Participants in a Bridges To Life program

Restorative Justice in Practice

Howard Zehr, Ph.D., a professor of Restorative Justice at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, has contributed substantially to the field of restorative justice. In 2002, he published The Little Book of Restorative Justice, a seminal work that practitioners all over the country rely on when administering restorative practices.

According to Zehr, restorative justice is about addressing the needs of all involved in a crime: the victim(s), offender(s), and the surrounding community. Whereas the punitive system is primarily concerned with balancing the scales, so to speak, by punishing the offender to a degree deemed equal — as much as possible — to the offense committed, restorative justice relies on an alternative logic. Zehr writes:

“In short, the legal system or criminal justice system centers on offenders and deserts — making sure those who offend get what they deserve. Restorative justice is more focused on needs: the needs of those harmed, of those causing harm, and of the communities in which these situations arise.”

“In short, the legal system or criminal justice system centers on offenders and deserts — making sure those who offend get what they deserve. Restorative justice is more focused on needs: the needs of those harmed, of those causing harm, and of the communities in which these situations arise.”

Zehr outlines the three pillars model to restorative justice: recognizing the harms caused and needs of those involved, holding those accountable for the harms to “put right” things as much as possible, and engaging the victim, the offender, and community in order to breed healing and restoration. In short, Zehr describes restorative justice as simply a form of “respect.” It emerged in its current form in the 1970s within the United States and Canada, and many of its practices are derived from restorative principles that have been used by indigenous peoples of the Americas and Africa throughout their histories.

Restorative justice advocates still understand the need to remove certain offenders from the public for the safety of society. However, to remove them and forget them undermines their dignity as human beings made in the image and likeness of God.

Sage’s Texas-based nonprofit, Bridges To Life, creates “restorative circles” within the state’s prison system to help administer restorative practices. A restorative circle looks like this: a group of inmates are invited to sit in a circle with a few volunteer facilitators. At least one of these volunteers will be a former victim, or a close relative or friend to a former victim, of a serious crime. This victim shares about how their life, and many others, were gravely affected by the crime. In the restorative justice circles run by Bridges To Life, the actual victims of the offenders are not included. Through a series of questions detailed in a curriculum book and study guide, the goal is ultimately to humanize all involved. The offender is given an opportunity to acknowledge that his or her actions had far-reaching consequences, which often he or she had not understood or realized.

“The offender might acknowledge they hurt someone they shot or stabbed, but they don’t realize how many other people they hurt,” Sage said. “It’s upon this realization that the offenders are invited to admit their crime, which is often the first time they’re encouraged to do this. The judicial system teaches them to be in denial. They are in denial in the legal process, and they are in denial in prison, since in prison you don’t ever talk about what you did. Once they become aware of what they did, then they take responsibility for it and own it. And when they see an unpaid volunteer coming into the prison and sharing this information with no real agenda, and see that this victim has reached some place of forgiveness, it just blows them away because in their world they don’t ever forgive.”

A member of the Bridges To Life restorative circle

Alfonso Esquer, M.S.W., director of PLNU’s criminal justice adult degree completion program, has spent years implementing restorative justice practices with members of the community both within prisons and beyond.

“When I call on an offender to take action by talking to a victim standing in for their victim, they have to engage that person,” Esquer said. “They can’t isolate their emotions and say what the other person wants to hear as easily. I’ve seen offenders stop and think and really begin to process their personal emotions. Internally, many of them feel ashamed and hurt. Most offenders, and this is also found in the research, have been victims of abuse and crimes themselves in the past.”

Related Article: Alfonso Esquer goes from an undercover DEA agent infiltrating cartels to a program director at PLNU committed to bringing restoration to his community.

In restorative justice circles facilitated by Bridges To Life, surrogates are used to foster the steps necessary to encourage healing and understanding. In other words, the victims and offenders involved are not each other’s victims and offenders. However, in some restorative justice circles, when deemed appropriate and all parties are willing, the victim meets with the actual offender along with other related members of the community (family members of the victim and offender, police officers, etc.). These types of restorative justice circles are easier to do with minor offenses, such as bullying, petty theft, or vandalism, in non-prison settings like schools or workplaces. When dealing with crimes involving attempted murder, serious assault, or rape, it isn’t always appropriate for the actual victim and offender to be together.

“It shows victims that these offenders are human beings,” Sage shared. “It gives them an opportunity to understand where these people came from, what their lives were like, and though a lot of them have made some horrible mistakes, that by and large they are not bad people. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘the more you understand, the more you forgive.’”

Dangerous Softening on Crime?

Understandably, there is often resistance to restorative justice because it can seem weak, ineffective, and downright inimical to the public good. Critics will often point to the most horrendous and egregious crimes, using such visceral examples to stir emotions of fear and anger that can attenuate the notion of restorative justice.

Additionally, it doesn’t help that restorative justice isn’t well understood. It certainly doesn’t advocate for the mass exonerating of all criminals, a blanket doling out of forgiveness regardless of the transformation or moral state of offenders. It also isn’t a call to remove prison systems wholesale or to make the law and its protection of human and civil rights inefficacious. However, advocates of restorative justice admit that the mere isolation of criminals after an adversarial criminal law process — being secluded in often merciless, dangerous living quarters — has many drawbacks. For one, the victim is usually not given any attention in the criminal justice process. Lawyers and litigators, instead, argue over what the offender owes to the state, and any questions regarding what the victim would like to see done, or how they would like to see the situation “made right” as much as possible are not part of the equation. Further, members of the community also have a stake in the crimes committed in their midst but are left out as well. In what ways are community members responsible for the victims or even held accountable for offenders’ crimes?

“Restorative justice is more focused on needs: the needs of those harmed, of those causing harm, and of the communities in which these situations arise.”

–Howard Zehr, Ph.D.

Aside from these issues, the prison system also incurs a major cost on society. An article in the New Yorker explains that “6.7 million people, mostly men, were under correctional supervision during the year 2015 — more than were enslaved in antebellum America and more than resided in the Gulag Archipelago at the height of Stalin’s misrule.” With massive economic, social, political, and racial costs, it represents one of the largest social burdens in the U.S. Another factor, according to the article, is that the punitive system in our country incentivizes prosecution, meaning that lawyers and judges — especially those who need to curry favor for election purposes — are rewarded for being hard on crime. However, justice isn’t about merely ensuring one is punished when a wrong is committed, but that the sentencing isn’t a form of unjust “justice.”

Before Esquer came to PLNU’s criminal justice adult degree completion program, he served 12 years in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). As a special agent and criminal investigator, he witnessed some of the worst criminal behavior, especially in the area of Mexican drug cartels. His vast experience in law enforcement combined with his exposure to the darkest recesses of the human condition gives him a unique understanding of the current criminal justice system.

“The majority view in law enforcement, from my experience, is the more punitive the system, the tougher we are on crime, the more effective it will be,” Esquer said. “Many would strive to get the longest sentences for prisoners through stacking charges and accusations, which is unjust.”

Esquer sees this mindset stemming from an underlying belief that criminals are unable to be restored, a mindset that leads to a “hardened heart,” he said.

“Many would strive to get the longest sentences for prisoners through stacking charges and accusations, which is unjust.”

–Alfonso Esquer, M.S.W.

It also doesn’t come as a surprise that prison, or a correctional facility as it’s sometimes called, isn’t very effective at actually “correcting” criminals, often leaving criminals in a worse state than when they entered. As one article from USA Today states, prisons “must be regarded as behavioral-change institutions, not warehouses for wrongdoers.”

Felicia Singleton, an adjunct professor for PLNU’s criminal justice adult degree completion program, admits that most students who begin the restorative justice and victimology class tend to be more wary of restorative justice at first.

“I try to get students to understand that consequences don’t have to equal punishment,” Singleton shared. “Most of my students start the course and are very pro punitive justice, but by the end of the course, students often ask how they can get an internship or how they can further this type of work because they begin to see how restorative justice can be effective. The biggest myth I try to debunk when I teach this course is that there is no accountability or responsibility in restorative justice. Instead, restorative justice is about being in relationship.”

According to the logic, the more we are in relationship with others — our family, friends, and larger community — the less likely we are to harm those relationships by committing crimes.

Alfonso Esquer, M.S.W., Director of PLNU's Criminal Justice adult degree completion program, talks with a student.
Alfonso Esquer, M.S.W., Director of PLNU’s Criminal Justice adult degree completion program, talks with a student.

Known By Its Fruit

One way to monitor the effectiveness of restorative justice is to look at recidivism rates, which refer to the rates that offenders released from prison reoffend. Bridges To Life facilitated 165 projects in 95 juvenile, prison, and alternative facilities in 2017 throughout Texas, with over 5,600 inmates graduating from the intensive 14-week curriculum that employs restorative justice principles. A study of 2,403 offender graduates released from prison in 2012 and 2013, after three years of release, had a recidivism rate of 14.5 percent, with only 2.5 percent of offenders returning to prison for committing a violent crime. The national recidivism rates, which have been stable since the mid-1990s, are between 38 and 48 percent.

In addition to the benefit to offenders and the public, Sage points to how powerful and restorative some of his work has been for victims. Sage shared how one victim, the mother of a 9-year-old girl who was kidnapped, abused, and found dead in a field, didn’t care if she lived another day. Despite taking medication and seeing psychiatrists, she felt nothing but misery. She eventually got involved with Bridges To Life, and told Sage that her involvement literally “saved her life.” She started to heal, eventually coming off her medication, and forgave the man who killed her daughter. Sage explains that we do the best we can to restore all involved as much as possible, knowing that we still live in an imperfect world.

A group of women inmates stand for a picture
Bridges To Life group members

While this anecdote highlights the benefits of restorative justice for victims, Sage acknowledges that many victims (and because of his own experience, he understands this well) “are pretty closed-minded when it comes to interacting with offenders.” According to Sage, unless they can come to a place of forgiveness through grace, real healing for victims can remain elusive.

“I went through seven steps that really helped me heal: one was unconditional surrender to God’s will, then empathy, understanding of God’s love for us, acceptance of where I was and of my sister’s murder, gratitude, forgiveness, and then, lastly, going out and trying to share this with others, helping others.”

It’s this experience of God’s love that grounds Bridges To Life’s mission of transforming victims and offenders in God’s love.

Restoring Our Communities

When it comes to relationships between law enforcement and members of the community in this country, especially minority members, we can stand to gain something from restorative practices that allow the space for dialogue, the opportunity for accountability, and the chance to engage in new behaviors.

Esquer is committed to remedying relationships between law enforcement and members of the community. One way he does this is by participating in Game Changers, a nonprofit organization founded in San Diego that puts on community events. These events draw together 10 police officers and 10 members of the community, where they honestly discuss various issues for two hours and then attend a sporting event afterward for casual socializing.

With law enforcement members, Esquer explains that many of them have suffered traumatic experiences that can trigger them to be overly cautious, paranoid, and, at times, unfair in their treatment of certain members of their community. As someone who has both suffered from PTSD and spent years counseling others with it, Esquer hopes to create spaces where law enforcement can be vulnerable and open, which can be difficult in a culture that often sees vulnerability and emotional pain as indicative of weakness.

“We’ll ask during these Game Changers events, ‘Who here has ever been pulled over by a cop or detained?’ And usually younger minorities will raise their hands,” Esquer explained. “And then, through facilitated dialogue, law enforcement members are able to better understand why certain community members feel victimized by the police. The community is also then able to understand that law enforcement has a very difficult job, while law enforcement is able to understand that it must feel unjust to be racially profiled, and how they wouldn’t want their own children to be detained and publicly humiliated for unjust reasons.”

The community is also then able to understand that law enforcement has a very difficult job, while law enforcement is able to understand that it must feel unjust to be racially profiled, and how they wouldn’t want their own children to be detained and publicly humiliated for unjust reasons.

Restorative justice practices can also benefit our school systems. Singleton, in addition to teaching for PLNU, headed up the Restorative Justice Practices Department for the San Diego Unified School District. She has worked with kids who have committed violations, facilitating restorative justice-like circles with student victims and offenders along with parents and teachers. Singleton’s work of restorative justice centers around giving all people involved in the community “a voice and an opportunity to heal,” she said.

Catherine Hanna Schrock, program manager and artistic director of the kNOw MORE! curriculum in PLNU’s Center for Justice and Reconciliation, employs restorative practices in diverse ways throughout the community as well. One effective and creative way she does this is through “Theatre of the Oppressed,” where a performance based on real events is presented to students, teachers, parents, and other members of the community. These dramas focus on sex trafficking or race relations and require participation from the audience. One drama, for example, may depict a teenage girl falling victim to sex trafficking.

kNOw MORE! uses Theatre of the Oppressed to engage students at a local San Diego public school.

“After the performance, we ask the audience, ‘Why did she fall victim to sex trafficking?’ Some immediate responses might be because she’s stupid, or a slut, or that she doesn’t have any self-esteem,” Schrock shared. “But then we encourage the audience to really examine her life, come to understand that she is vulnerable because of other circumstances: her lack of a father figure, her mom’s constant working, or her friends’ bullying behavior. Then we’ll do the same thing for the friends in the play. The audience is able to recognize that we all have the power to not only change our own lives but to change the lives of others through our actions. We also never dehumanize the oppressor. There is a trafficker in this story and what they are doing is wrong, illegal, and harmful; however, this person is a human being who has a story. And so we get into the offender’s story or what could be that story.” 

Related Article: An interview with Jamie Gates about a three-year study examining the relationship between gangs, the community, and sex trafficking in San Diego County.

While restorative justice, in its comprehensive form, involves remedying severed relationships between victims, offenders, and the community, elements of restorative justice practices that include creating space for honest dialogue for better understanding, a willingness to be accountable to our actions, and the overall humanizing of individuals regardless of circumstances, can be applied in all areas of society.

Restorative Justice As a Way of Being

Implementing a restorative justice mindset on a large scale remains difficult. For one, training people who can apply restorative practices requires a large amount of resources and commitment. It also requires a drastic change in the way we’ve been doing things, which can often spur fear and uncertainty.

“We have a collective mentality that says, ‘anyone, regardless of their circumstances, who does x, y, or z, should receive this consequence,’ as opposed to taking a nuanced approach that looks deep behind why and how the community was or wasn’t involved,” Schrock said. “For example, a ‘thug’ who shoots a person is simply just a terrible person.”

Singleton echoes a belief that people are not reducible to their actions. “Most of us don’t want to be defined by the worst things we have ever done,” she said.

It’s a fundamental belief that aligns with Scripture — we have infinite dignity and worth because we’re made in God’s image. At its core, restorative justice embodies this Christian belief, contending that no one is disposable or beyond the reaches of God’s love.

“Restorative justice goes beyond methodology,” Schrock shared. “It’s a way of being — a way of seeing the world that boils down to, in my experience, love.”

Related Article: What does it look like to listen to and receive others in dialogue with the radical love Christ asks of us, even when it’s not easy?

Christopher Hazell is a writer and editor. He is the author of Ends in Mind, a newsletter about culture, technology, Christian spirituality, the arts, and more.