As she sat in her boyfriend’s car, a young Texas woman named Dee Dee Washington was shot and killed-an innocent bystander of a drug deal gone bad. For 14 years, the man who fired the shot, Ron Flowers, never admitted to killing her-not until, that is, Ron was admitted to the InnerChange Freedom Initiative® (IFI), the prison program launched by Prison Fellowship in Texas.
IFI applies principles of restorative justice by confronting offenders with the harm they have done to their victims. During one of IFI’s Victim Awareness sessions, Ron finally admitted that he did commit the murder, and he prayed that his victim’s family would forgive him. He wrote a letter to Dee Dee’s mother, Mrs. Anna Washington, expressing his repentance and deep remorse.
For her part, Mrs. Washington had written angry letters every year to the parole board, urging them to deny Ron parole. But when Ron confessed, Mrs. Washington felt an overwhelming conviction that she should meet the man who had killed her daughter.
Prison Fellowship staff carefully prepared Mrs. Washington and Ron for the meeting. Mrs. Washington finally could ask the questions that virtually every victim wants to ask: “Why did you do it?” “How did it happen?” Ron reassured her that her daughter was not involved in the drug deal. As Ron told her about the day that he killed her daughter, Mrs. Washington took his hands in hers and said, “I forgive you.”
I was in Houston for Ron’s graduation from IFI. As Ron crossed the stage to receive his diploma, Mrs. Washington rose from her seat and walked over to embrace Ron, the man who had murdered her daughter. She then told all of us in the audience, “This young man is my adopted son.”
After Ron’s release, Mrs. Washington helped him adjust to the community, sat with him at church, had him over for dinner, and even stood by him when he was married.
Only God could bring about such reconciliation and healing.
Unlike our criminal justice system, which focuses solely on public safety and order, restorative justice is also about repairing the harm caused by crime. An important part of the reparative process is victim-offender reconciliation. These meetings allow “victims, offenders, and community members” to discuss what happened and its “aftermath”-to seek repentance and forgiveness.
This is more than an ill-defined sense of “closure.” Coming face-to-face with victims can cause offenders to think about their actions and their consequences in a way that punishment alone never can.
Anyone who has spent time around inmates knows that many view themselves as victims-something that is harder to do when you have spoken to the real victims. Research suggests that inmates who meet with their victims are more likely to pay court-ordered restitution than those who do not.
You see, as I have said countless times, crime is a moral and spiritual issue. That being the case, rehabilitation can happen only when offenders see their offenses as more than rule-breaking: They must see them as a transgression against God and other people.
While promoting order is the God-given role of government, there is more to justice than police, prosecutors, and prison. Justice also means repairing the harm caused by crime, which requires going where government cannot go-to the human heart.
This commentary is part three in a four-part series.