Restorative Justice and
the Common Good:
Creating a Culture of Forgiveness
Tom Cavanagh, MS
justice is a valued-based approach to criminal justice, with a balanced
focus on the offender, victim, and community. The foundation of restorative
justice is to determine the harm resulting from a crime, what needs
to be done to repair the harm, and who is responsible for repairing
the harm. In contrast, the dominant approach to criminal justice
today, retributive justice, focuses on determining what law was broken,
who broke it, and how they will be punished. Restorative justice
advocate Tom Cavanagh seeks to identify and clarify the core values
of this approach to one of the enduring social issues of our time.
Today as a culture we are
focused on tolerance: tolerance of differences, whether they be ethnic,
racial, or economic. Our slogan might be, "You can do what you want
as long as you let me do what I want." This focus is based on the
virtue of "non-judgmentalism." Where morality is primarily
personal, not public, we believe such non-judgmentalism leads us on the
path least likely to bring up past pain and provoke more violence.
The question I ask myself
is: is tolerance enough? I suggest tolerance is not enough because tolerance
did not create our present situation and is not the solution, for tolerance
will not heal the wounds of our society, nor cure social isolation and
despair. The answer lies in a focus on the common good. Restortative
justice advocate and New Zealand priest Jim Consedine defines this common
good as "the whole network of social conditions which enable human
individuals and groups to flourish and live a fully human life. Far from
each being primarily for him or herself, all are responsible for all."
Presently the dominant ethical
norms in our culture seem to be kindness and honesty rather than social
justice and social equality. I suggest this is a direct result of the
creation of a large, affluent middle class, who live with those people
like-situated, apart from those who are different. This pervasive attitude
avoids the real quality of life issues in the United States such as:
The philosophy of the common
good offers an alternative vision to our current reality. Certainly peace
is at the center of the common good, and forgiveness and reconciliation
are the ways to peace in ourselves, our families, and our communities.
Pope John Paul II saw this new millennium as a mutual celebration of
forgiveness and reconciliation. In his Message for the World Day of Peace,
January 1, 1997, the Pope said:
Certainly there are many
factors which can help restore peace, while safeguarding the demands
of justice and human dignity. But no process of peace can ever begin
unless an attitude of sincere forgiveness takes root in human hearts.
When such forgiveness is lacking, wounds continue to fester, fueling
in the younger generation endless resentment, producing a desire for
revenge and causing fresh destruction. Offering and accepting forgiveness
is the essential condition for making the journey towards authentic
and lasting peace.
With deep conviction, therefore,
I wish to appeal to everyone to seek peace along the paths of forgiveness...As
scripture bears witness, God is rich in mercy and full of forgiveness
for those who come back to him. God’s forgiveness becomes in our hearts
an inexhaustible source of forgiveness in our relationships with one
another, helping us to live together in true brotherhood.
In September of 1999 the Wisconsin
Catholic bishops recognized the value of forgiveness and reconciliation
in their letter titled, "Public Safety, the Common Good, and the
Church: A Statement on Crime and Punishment in Wisconsin." The bishops
During his public ministry,
Jesus called on followers to not just love their neighbors but also
their enemies; to do good to those who harm you. Instead of unlimited
revenge and retaliation, Jesus called for unlimited love (Matthew 5:38-48)
and said our forgiveness should be beyond calculation, it should be
70 times seven (Matthew 18:22).
And even while Jesus hung
dying on the cross in pain, he extended welcome and love to the criminal
hanging next to him (Luke 23:43). This was "an act of extreme mercy,
an extreme gift, which can give confidence even to those who feel totally
lost. With this act of forgiveness, the Lord speaks to humanity in every
How can we begin to implement
forgiveness and reconciliation in our daily lives so we can create this
peace? Restorative justice is one solution to this question. I began
learning about restorative justice six years ago. Since then the recognition
of restorative justice as an adjunct to our current retributive system
grew. Roger Warren, president of the National Center for State Courts,
pointed out the emerging trend towards a system of restorative rather
than retributive justice. National Institute of Corrections Director
Morris Thigpen noted a transitional change is occurring in the criminal
justice system involving themes of restorative justice. Nancy Gist, Director
of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, called for bridging the gap between
the courts and the public, and in March of 1999 Colorado Governor Bill
Owens signed into law a bill "concerning a restorative justice program
in the juvenile justice system." In their 1999 letter the Wisconsin
Catholic bishops said, "All of us must be involved in the work of
restorative justice and all institutions have something to contribute
to making it a reality."
Restorative justice’s emphasis
on healing the harm of crime, with a balanced focus on the offender,
victim, and community, creates the foundation for a set of practices
the current retributive system cannot achieve, because it is based on
law and punishment. This story illustrates the outcomes of our retributive
The chains were noisy as they
were dragged on the floor by the juvenile. I heard the familiar sound
as I was waiting for another session of court. That day I looked in the
hallway to see who was wearing the chains. I saw what appeared to be
a ten-year-old boy, barely big enough to drag the heavy chains, manacled
around his wrists and shackled to his ankles. I was appalled. Why was
this boy arrested, locked in jail overnight, and then brought to court
like this? What heinous crime did this young boy commit to deserve this
punishment? I was so angry I sought out a prosecutor to find the answer
to my questions.
I learned the boy was arrested
and jailed for stealing candy. I was ashamed that such a petty offense
warranted such treatment. I told the prosecutor, "If the treatment
of this young boy is the best we can do, then we have failed and failed
miserably." Yes, as a society, in our communities, and as
a system of criminal justice I would hope we could do better than treat
this young boy with such utter disgrace.
The social problems we are
asking our courts to solve cannot be addressed by our current system
of justice. These problems, as well as our judicial system, are based
on a philosophy embraced by our current society focused on utilitarianism,
expediency, and the pursuit of self-interest. Restorative justice offers
us an opportunity to address these problems, backed up by our traditional
system, and renew the confidence of the public in our courts. This account
of the "Paintball case" illustrates how restorative justice
The paintball incident occurred
in April of 1998. A young man shot a paintball gun at a group of girls
outside Swenson’s Ice Cream Parlor in Fort Collins, Colorado, striking
a young lady in the eye, resulting in permanent blindness.
On June 8th the young man
appeared in juvenile court and pled guilty before Magistrate Joseph Coyte.
In the meantime, the offender and victim wanted to meet face to face.
Probation Officer Mort Gallagher suggested this case was ideal to use
a family group conference, a restorative justice process.
The conference was held at
the United Way office the day before the sentencing to accommodate the
presence of everyone who wanted to attend. Bernadette Felix, probation
officer for the offender, obtained approval from Magistrate Coyte to
hold the conference and received his support.
Leslie Young, a trained mediator
for family group conferences and a Loveland police officer, coordinated
the process. Fifteen people attended. The four-hour conference resulted
in an opportunity for the offender and his family, the victim and her
family, and members of the community to share their stories about the
incident and the resulting effects. A key theme during the discussion
was concern for the safety of others involved with paintball guns and
of the need to inform others about the dangers of paintballing.
The young man and his family
assumed financial responsibility for the expenses incurred by the victim
and her family. He read a letter of apology to the victim, in which he
offered to donate his eye to replace the victim’s eye, which was blinded
in the incident. A final agreement was prepared and signed. In speaking
about the conference, Felix said, "Initially it was very tense,
but as it went on, people were able to come together as a team. It was
a real powerful experience."
The day after the conference
was the sentencing hearing in front of Magistrate Coyte. He expressed
support for the agreement and sentenced the young man to two years of
probation and 45 days in jail. The jail term was suspended, except for
six days in jail on weekends.
On September 10th, a letter
to the editor from the young man appeared in the Fort Collins Coloradoan,
with the headline "Teen learned the hard way about paintball gun
dangers." In the letter he described to the community how sorry
he was for hurting the girl and how such a result needed to cross his
mind before he shot the paintball gun. Through this incident those involved
in the conference showed that we can bring together the victim, offender,
and community and heal the harm of a crime.
From the philosophy of the
common good, we learn about human dignity, and that knowledge forms the
basis for how people form systems of justice. By disregarding morality
and values, our dominant judicial system came to focus on expediency
and practicality, which is a utilitarian/individualistic approach. Such
a retributive approach relies on a new mindset of reality through punishment
(coercion) rather than rehabilitation by appealing to an individual’s
reason and human conscience, resulting in freely chosen behaviors.
In contrast, retributive justice
values center on command, prohibition, permission, and punishment. From
the idea of the common good we learn the purpose of the law (state) is
to support and create communities of people who are spiritual and whose
ultimate destiny transcends the community, not to govern a group of individuals
with no life beyond the community.
Such "Age of Enlightenment" thinking
leads to consumerism and having, as contrasted with common good behaviors
of self-giving and being, based on such values as truth, beauty, goodness,
The common good is grounded
in the health of the family. Therefore, under common good the criminal
justice system is obligated to protect and promote the family. The restorative
justice values of unity and stability of the family support this principle.
These values are exercised through respect for the dignity of individuals
in the family, independence and privacy of the family, and integrity
in dealing with families, to include extended families.
From the philosophy of the
common good we learn that relationships are the essence of our being,
both with other people and with God. Therefore, we can understand the
restorative justice choice to restore broken relationships rather than
focusing on punishment. Being human and living in relationship with others
are intrinsically intertwined. Relationships are the essence of personhood.
The key concept is that people exist only in relations with each other.
This concept of relationships contrasts with the dominant culture’s focus
We can strengthen relationships
in our communities by works of charity and solidarity which assure that
families receive adequate resources. The strengthening of relations between
generations within the community and the creation of networks of solidarity
results in a strengthening of the community fabric.
A core concept under the common
good is that the family is more sacred than the state. The purpose of
the state is to protect and serve the family, which represents the core
and smallest unit of the community. From the philosophy of the common
good we learn that the fundamental relationship is the family. The family
is the core social institution and the primary part of society. The emphasis
on family causes us to:
1. Form a community of loving
2. Be dedicated to life
3. Participate in the development
of society by recognizing the value of the family
4. Share our belief in the
value of the family with others
As a result of recognizing
the value of the family, restorative justice seeks rehabilitation as
the first choice, particularly with juveniles. While the retributive
justice approach relies on imprisoning people, restorative justice views
the separation of the offender from his or her family to be the last
resort, since the family relationship is valued so highly.
The concept of community under
restorative justice focuses on seeking the common good based on:
1. Respect for the basic dignity
(personhood) of every person
2. Commitment to the well-being
and development of all people, particularly through providing the basics
of human life: food, clothing, health care, work, education, culture,
information, and the right to have a family.
3. Living in peace in an environment
where the common good and community are one, that is, synonymous.
Such a shared vision of the
common good leads to the restorative justice core value of a balanced
focus on the offender, victim, and the community. Thus the objective
of restorative justice is to promote the common good.
Our country’s laws were based
on the ultimate authority of a greater law called divine law. The Constitution
of the United States affirmed the existence of the common good and perpetuated
belief in God.
Common good values respect
the law of God and are an alternative to the prevalent thinking, called
utilitarian positivism, by recognizing the dignity of personhood and
the sanctity of the family. A restorative justice based on such values
will promote the common good and limit the power of the state.
Our dominant "Age of
Enlightenment" approach to justice views the common good in terms
of "in the public interest." Rather than focusing on the core
values which are shared by all and come from the heart of a community,
the public interest is based on a collection of private rights or "the
greatest good for the greatest number."
The result of this "Enlightenment" approach
is a vision of creating a safe community, one in which the dominant members
can feel safe from those who live on the margins of society. This safety
is achieved by separating those marginalized people from the community
and putting them in prison. As a result, prisons contain an over-represented
population of ethnic minorities, mentally handicapped, and the poor.
Such disproportionate numbers of these people is contrary to the common
good and the restorative justice concept of healing relationships. Emphasis
on the common good creates a culture of peace by uniting people and making
them responsible for one another.
However, restorative justice
will only end up as a passing trend or fad if it is not based on a sound
philosophy. Restorative justice is well founded in the philosophy of
the common good. The common good was defined by the Catholic bishops
of England and Wales as "the whole network of social conditions
which enable human individuals and groups to flourish and live a fully,
genuinely human life, otherwise described as ‘integral human development.’ All
are responsible for all, collectively, at the level of society or nation,
not only as individuals." This collective responsibility is at the
core of community and arises from the social nature of people and the
need for relationships. As David Hollenbach, S.J., said in a presentation
entitled "The Common Good and the Recovery of Public Life," presented
at the inauguration of the Institute on the Common Good, at Regis University
in Denver in October 1998. "Americans lack a vision for the common
good," preferring the virtues of tolerance and non-judgementalism
over a "recognition that the dignity of human persons is achieved
only in community with others" including a "commitment to solidarity
with others," and focused on the "national and the global common
The New Zealand Catholic bishops
applied the concept of the common good to restorative justice by writing, "Restoration
was the primary focus of biblical justice systems...It was based on the
need to seek shalom, the peace and well-being of the whole people. Shalom
does not simply mean the absence of conflict. It means peace combined
with justice and right relationships. The law was there to seek, protect
and promote shalom."
"The Common Good" document
outlined two basis tenets: subsidiarity and solidarity. Subsidiarity
was defined as "decisions being taken as close to the grass roots
as good government allows." Solidarity was described as meaning "we
are all responsible for each other." As described the New Zealand
Bishops, the restorative justice complement to these ideas "seeks
to help offenders take personal responsibility for their behavior, encourages
victims to seek healing, and a restoration of well-being, and challenges
the community to recognize the human dignity of both offender and victim,
with a view to helping repair the damage done by the criminal behavior."
Another important aspect of
the common good, as explained by the bishops of England and Wales, is "the
obligation of every individual to contribute to the good of society,
in the interests of justice and in pursuit of the ‘option for the poor.’" We
realize our current retributive system of justice focuses on imprisonment
of offenders. The poor, dark-skinned, addicted, mentally ill, and those
living on the margins of our society are disproportionately represented
among the two million people incarcerated in this country today. The
spiral of involvement of these people results from a criminal justice
system focused on vengeance and punishment. Such a system breeds violence,
unfairness, and inhumanity and ignores common sense and the well being
of the community. Often our prisons are "an affront to human dignity...and
a poison in the bloodstream of the nation," as described by the
New Zealand bishops.
"Each person possesses
a basic dignity that comes from God," said the bishops of England
and Wales, and they proclaimed, "Every public policy should be judged
by the effect it has on human dignity and the common good." Father
Consedine, who is a restorative justice activist and consultant to the
New Zealand bishops, explained further at the Neil Williamson Memorial
Lecture for New Zealand judges, in June 1998, entitled, "Morality
and the Law: The Relationship Between Restorative Justice and the Common
Good," "In essence justice is an active and life-giving virtue
which defends and promotes the dignity of every living person and is
concerned for the Common Good insofar as it is the guardian of relations
between individuals and peoples." Father Consedine continued, "I
would argue that the recognition and acceptance of the Common Good as
being the most important component of a commonly held morality is the
most urgent task of our time." The New Zealand bishops and Father
Consedine outlined a vision of restorative justice, in the context of
the common good, as the ability to create communities of peace, through
the healing of relationships in the community, focused on the common
good of all involved. The underlying theme of restorative justice is
healing every person affected by a crime through reparation, rather than
punishment, based on the values of apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
The Wisconsin Catholic bishops
grounded a restorative approach to justice in the following way: From
it’s beginning, the Church has tried to help individuals and communities
struggle with the reality of sin and wrongdoing. Both through ministry
to those affected by sin and wrongdoing and by reflection on its causes,
the Church has helped people in their struggle to heal the wounds of
broken trust and ruptured relationships...
According to the Catechism
of the Catholic Church, "the common good concerns the life of all." Thus,
every person has a responsibility to contribute to the common good and
a right to have his or her needs respected as the community arranges
its life to further the good of all.
This blend of personal responsibility
and recognition of basic rights is also reflected in the three elements
of the common good: respect for the person, the well being of the group,
and peace, that is the stability and security of a just order.
The need to educate and promote
the common good is crucial to making the changes necessary for restoring
our justice system to its intended role in our society. Consedine said, "I
would argue that the recognition and acceptance of the principle of the
common good as being the most important component of a commonly held
morality is the most urgent task of our time."
Based on the need for justice
to be rooted in the common good, what then is justice? Consedine responded, "In
essence justice is an active and life-giving virtue which defends and
promotes the dignity of every living person and is concerned for the
common good insofar as it is the guardian of relations between individuals
Law and justice are not the
same. Justice flows from the law and should reflect a system of values,
including fairness, truth, honesty, compassion, and respect. Justice
needs to be based on the principles of respect, mercy, and forgiveness.
By far, forgiveness is the most difficult principle to understand and
embrace in our current society.
A restorative justice founded
on the common good will achieve the mission of learning how to repair
the harm of crime by concentrating on the core values of personal responsibility,
apology, healing, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Such a process
is transformative in nature and gives hope, honors the dignity of all
involved in the crime, and treats people with respect.
The vision of restorative
justice, in the context of the common good, is to create communities
of peace, through the healing of relationships in the community, focused
on the common good of all involved. The underlying theme of restorative
justice is healing every person affected by a crime through reparation,
rather than punishment, based on the values of apology, forgiveness,
Any idea based on the common
good poses a serious threat to the dominant system of justice and current
thinking in our culture. Our affluent/consumer society equates people
with economics and satisfying material needs. This view creates a partisan
interest, replacing the common good, which sets one group against another
and imposes the interests of one group on another without regard to individual
rights. Such thinking underlies the vision of safe versus peaceful communities.
The Wisconsin Catholic bishops
issued a strong challenge to Catholics. "We must invite each person,
victim, and wrongdoer to restore their belief in a human family that
is larger than they are but incomplete without them. For, in the final
analysis, only a community that tempers justice with mercy and that welcomes
back its prodigal children can be healed. Only such communities can become
truly safer. And only in the peace of such safety can the common good
Long-term change of our judicial
system and implementation of the core values of restorative justice will
require a foundation in a sound philosophy like the common good. A restorative
justice founded on the common good will achieve the mission of learning
how to repair the harm of crime by concentrating on the core values of
responsibility, apology, healing, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Such a process is transformative in nature and gives hope, honors the
dignity of all involved in the crime, and treats people with respect.
. I challenge you, and I challenge myself, to seek the greater vision
of the common good, to replace our inward focus on our wants, needs,
and desires with a commitment to the common good of all.
Tom Cavanagh, MS, is a scholar,
writer, and facilitator of restorative justice. He facilitated a private
forum called, "A conversation about restorative justice in Colorado," as
part of the Institute on the Common Good at Regis University in Denver.
He is currently an Affiliate Professor of Management for the School for
Professional Studies at Regis University. He worked 28 years as a court
reporter for the District Court in Fort Collins.