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Justice & Advocacy - an affiliate website of The Lehigh Conference of Churches

The Heart of Justice: Retribution or Restoration?

“He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives … to let the oppressed go free.” Luke 4:18
“I was in prison and you visited me …” Matt. 25:36

About 85 people gathered November 9 at the Sacred Heart Hospital Conference Center for conversation about the state of Pennsylvania’s “criminal justice” system and its implications for Allentown and the Lehigh Valley. In Pennsylvania, “criminal justice” has become a euphemism for Commonwealth policies that have produced an exploding prison population. The state’s share of funding for basic public education and related social services has been progressively reduced for many years while the state prison system has been rapidly expanding – an increase of more than 500% in the number of people locked up since the 1970s – fueled by judicial practices that discriminate against people in poverty and people of color. Lack of effective educational or rehabilitative services for prisoners ensures that about 70% of adults released from prison will soon return, and corrections practices can be very destructive for families – especially for children who are suddenly isolated from their parents.

There are better alternatives, and several Lehigh Valley agencies and ministry programs provide supportive services for prisoners and returning citizens. Also, in Lehigh County innovative juvenile justice practices, such as “community justice panels,” have successfully reduced the number of youth in detention over the past several years. The International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) has begun conflict mediation training in the Bethlehem and Allentown School Districts that has significantly reduced incidents of school violence. IIRP has successfully used similar training with violent offenders at Graterford state prison, but sadly, Pennsylvania no longer supports such programs. The primary goal of our justice system should be to enable as many people as possible to become responsible citizens. Instead, far too many people are locked away for years at a time with little hope of returning to productive lives.

This year the Allentown School District cut 102 teachers and 23 other staff from payroll – in addition to previous layoffs. For the cost of each person kept in prison this year (about $43,000), a teacher could have been hired instead.

This is the first of several reports from “The Heart of Justice” event, and LCCC’s Justice and Advocacy Committee which organized the event plans to continue the conversation with our congregations and community agencies. Of course, talking about what’s broken is not the end goal. We need to fix what’s broken! But change starts with understanding what is broken, how it affects us, and what the alternatives are.

There are links to many resources related to “The Heart of Justice” event at justice.ppjr.org, or contact us at justice @ ppjr.org

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