Caritas, bishops call for prisoner reconciliation

New Zealand’s Catholic bishops have stressed that reconciliation, rather than revenge, must become the focus of the justice system to create a safer and more secure society.

New Zealand’s Catholic bishops have stressed that reconciliation, rather than revenge, must become the focus of the justice system to create a safer and more secure society.

The statement on imprisonment, Revenge or Reconciliation, released last month, reflects the view of Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias and Corrections Department chief Barry Matthews that greater community involvement is needed to reduce New Zealand’s high prison rate.

Caritas, bishops call for prisoner reconciliation Archdiocese of Wellington ‘All of us, whether victims of crime, offenders, employees in the criminal justice system, family members or neighbours, are called to find paths to a justice system which reconciles, which rejects attitudes of revenge, which helps victims to heal and offenders to turn their lives around,’ say the bishops. ‘It is the only true path to the security and safety that our society longs for.’

The bishops say that society is becoming increasingly fearful, with people building a sense of security only on fuller prisons, longer sentences and harsher treatment of offenders, resulting in increasingly punitive attitudes towards people in prison, and calls for revenge and retribution.

Bishop Barry Jones of Christchurch is the bishops’ representative on the Prison Chaplaincy Service of Aotearoa New Zealand Board. He says these attitudes have to change.

‘Neither repentance nor forgiveness can occur without love and support, nor can either take place in an environment of bitterness and vengeance. Such support is lacking far too often in our current criminal justice system,’ he says.

In 1989 the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference said that unless there was a change in responses to crime, New Zealand was heading to be the most imprisoned society in the Western world. Twenty years later, it is second only to the United States.

The Catholic Church in New Zealand continues to make a considerable contribution to the lives of people in prisons, through prison chaplaincy and other forms of ministry. It provides 25 prison chaplains to the country’s 20 prisons.

Bishop Jones says church ministers speak of a ‘constant deterioration’ in prison conditions and of greater stigma for people trying to turn their lives around and reintegrate into society.

Requiring offenders to face up to the consequences of their crimes and giving victims an opportunity to express their hurt can be a turning point for both parties, the bishops say.

‘Restorative justice needs good facilitators who understand that reconciliation is the goal of restorative justice, and it is not simply another way of sentencing offenders. New Zealand has led the world in incorporating restorative justice processes into its justice system, and the country needs to continue to support this work for everyone involved.’

Meanwhile, Caritas has previewed next month’s Social Justice Week theme with a similar call for Aotearoa New Zealand society to change its perspective on issues surrounding crime and justice.

Caritas director Michael Smith told a gathering at St Joseph’s parish, Mt Victoria, last month, society is showing an increasingly punitive attitude towards people in prison, so any message of redemption for them is not warmly received by many people.

Despite increasing numbers of people in our prisons and longer sentences, many New Zealanders do not feel any safer, he said.

‘Our current criminal justice system is largely failing victims of crime, offenders and the community as a whole,’ he said.

Social Justice Week this year focuses on crime, punishment and restorative justice through the theme, ‘A justice that reconciles’.

Caritas is encouraging people to consider crime and punishment issues from a Christian perspective.

For example, Caritas’ understanding of the Good Samaritan parable [Luke 10] is to emphasise that the process of reconciliation always begins with the victim. The purpose of supporting victims is not aimed at revenge but is to consider how people can restore relationships that have been damaged and broken.

‘This goal recognises that reconciliation can’t take people back to a former state, but moves both victim and offender towards a new place.’

Christian tradition also teaches us to recognise the face of Christ in every prisoner. But Caritas accepts that there are some dangerous people who may need to be detained for life to protect society as well.

Caritas is involved with the group Rethinking Crime and Punishment. This organisation has information from 50 studies involving 300,000 prisoners which shows that the longer people are kept in prison, the more likely they are to reoffend. Similarly, the harsher the treatment they receive, the more likely they are to reoffend.

‘We, at Caritas, are well aware that respecting the human rights of prisoners is not currently a popular concept—we are particularly conscious of this when we make submissions at Parliament.’

Mr Smith thinks that New Zealand restorative justice processes, such as family group conferences for youth offending, have provided a turning point for both victims and offenders. These systems have led the world. Similar processes have also been found among many Maori and Pacific people’s traditional justice systems.

‘The focus of such systems is the restoration of relationships. Caritas would like to see greater use of restorative justice processes in New Zealand.’

Caritas resources for Social Justice Week also highlight some Catholic schools that are adopting restorative justice processes, such as St Columba’s Catholic school in Hamilton and St Thomas of Canterbury College in Christchurch.

‘Caritas staff were impressed with the understanding that college students had gained of restorative justice through its use in schools,’ said Mr Smith. For example, the college leader at St Thomas’ said restorative justice has taught him the importance of communication and how it had helped many friendships to stay together. The processes have also led to a clear reduction in stand-downs, suspensions and exclusions at the college.


Social Justice Week resources for parishes, schools and youth group leaders will be sent out this month.