Promoting reformative justice in Network Service Programs

Students+within+the+Sacred+Heart+Network+gather+virtually+to+evaluate+the+United+States+criminal+justice+system.++

Leah Allen '22

Students within the Sacred Heart Network gather virtually to evaluate the United States’ criminal justice system.

Last summer, Sacred Heart students from across the country participated in the Juvenile Justice Network Summer Service Program, June 20 to June 26 and July 6 to July 13.  Participants from seven of the Sacred Heart Network Schools, including Sacred Heart Greenwich seniors Mimi Lee, Kayla Malcolm-Joseph, and Leah Allen, collaborated virtually to examine the complexities and inequities embedded within the juvenile probation process and criminal justice system in the United States.  They also evaluated the ways in which both systems can undergo reforms.

Honoring the spirit of Goal Three, “a social awareness which impels to action,” and Goal Four, “a building of a community as a Christian value,” of Sacred Heart’s Goals and Criteria, students engaged with political activists, judges, humanitarian workers, public defenders, social workers, and formerly incarcerated citizens.  The program primarily focused on analyzing the shortcomings of the United States’s criminal justice and legal systems. Participants also discussed areas where equitable changes are necessary.

Students in the Juvenile Justice Network Service Program collaborate on media projects to educate others on the nuances of the criminal justice system.  Leah Allen ’22

In previous years, students in the Juvenile Justice Network Service program spent a week in Chicago, Illinois and visited local non-profit organizations and prisons in order to learn about how the state of Illinois handles the prosecution of juvenile offenders.  Although this year’s program was virtual, students in both sessions formed close bonds with guest speakers and worked collaboratively on media projects that documented their takeaways from the experience.

The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons, according to sentencingproject.org.  In addition, approximately 60,000 Americans under the age of 18 have served time in juvenile prisons, according to aclu.org.  

Studies show that racial and socio-economic minorities in the United States face disproportionate rates of incarceration.  While Black Americans make up 13.4 percent of the population, they are six times more likely to face jail time than White Americans and account for 22 percent of fatal incidents of police brutality, according to naacp.org.  Impoverished and homeless citizens are also 11 times more likely to experience incarceration, according to americanactionforum.org.

In light of the equity issues ingrained within the United States justice and punitive systems, students in the Juvenile Justice Program focused on the concept of restorative justice.  Restorative justice is an approach to violence, harm, and abuse that seeks to “respond to violence without creating more violence.”  The goal of this approach is to evaluate incidents of violence based on the underlying factors that perpetuate them, including poverty, trauma, white supremacy, or community violence, according to transformharm.org After participating in the program, Mimi shared her personal definition of restorative justice.

“To me, restorative justice differs from the traditional form of punitive justice in that it focuses on reconciliation between the parties involved in a crime, dialogue to find common ground, and healing for the community and all those impacted, rather than the traditional system of the doling out of a punishment with no consideration of the community or steps the victim can take to move forward,” Mimi said.

During the program, students had the opportunity to speak with individuals working in the juvenile or criminal justice systems in Chicago.  Ms. Keely Mullen, social activist, journalist, and director of the documentary “No Place For Kids,” Ms. Betsy Clarke, president of the non-profit organization the Juvenile Justice Initiative,  and Ms. Tamela Meehan, Juvenile Probation officer in Cook County, Illinois, discussed structural inequities in the juvenile court system.

Students also heard from Mrs. Emily Cortina, Coordinator of Outreach and Formation at Kolbe House Jail Ministry in Chicago.  Kolbe House is a Catholic organization that provides aid to citizens affected by incarceration and community violence, according to catholicprisonministries.org.  Later, they spoke with Mr. Nick Shafer from the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, a Catholic organization that seeks to empower and aid violence-ridden communities, according to pbmr.org.  Both speakers explained the concepts of restorative justice, “radical Christian hospitality,” community and youth empowerment programs, and other alternative solutions to punitive justice.

Mr. Ethan Viets-VanLear, community organizer and advocate for the formerly incarcerated, spoke with students in the Juvenile Justice program about his work advocating for criminal justice reform.  Courtesy of youtube.com

Mr. Ethan Viets-Vanlear, a community organizer and activist, and Ms. Carmen Casas, former Juvenile Probation officer, spoke about their personal experiences involved in the Illinois criminal justice system and highlighted its shortcomings.  Mr. Viets-Vanlear and Ms. Casas both work to empower low-income youth in their respective communities.

The week-long program stressed the importance of reflection, solidarity, and empathy.  Mimi described the aspect of the program that resonated with her the most.

“The speaker that resonated most with me was Nick Shafer from Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, an organization in Chicago that aims to aid communities deeply affected by incarceration, violence and works with people to prevent a cycle of re-incarceration,” Mimi said.  “Mr. Shafer’s care and dedication for his work and the people at Precious Blood were so evident.  I was particularly struck by the values leading the organization, such as hope, healing, “radical hospitality” and accompaniment, and the ways in which they use trauma informed-care and dialogue to forge restorative justice and give back to the community.  I think we can all learn from Precious Blood’s persistence and versatility.”

Featured Image by Leah Allen ’22