A few years ago, an Arizona boy -- a good student I'll call Lenny -- suddenly embarked on a life of crime.
He broke into neighbors' homes at night and utterly destroyed them. He tore up sofas, broke TVs, and smeared food on the walls.
Lenny ended up before Judge William O'Neil. It was the best thing that could have happened, both to Lenny and the community, because Judge O'Neil believes in restorative justice -- a way of dealing with crime that brings healing and reconciliation. It's a concept pioneered by Prison Fellowship. The movement defines crime as harm to human relationships -- not just breaking the law. And true justice, therefore, means repairing that harm, or restoring the community -- what the Israelites called shalom, true peace.
Normally, in a case like Lenny's, a probation officer gives a short report on the juvenile's background. Judge O'Neil changed that. "When I became a presiding judge," he told BreakPoint, "I said I want a fuller background study in order to rehabilitate the child. It's better in the long run than locking him up. We can't prevent the crime that's already happened -- but we can work to prevent future crimes."
When the probation officer dug into Lenny's background, he uncovered shocking details. Lenny's parents had been contemplating divorce. One day Lenny came home from school to find his father dead. He had shot himself in Lenny's bedroom. His blood was splattered all over the walls.
The family was too poor to paint over the bloodstains. Although the walls were washed, an ugly stain remained -- one that haunted Lenny. The result was that each night he crept into the homes of intact families and let his rage explode.
Judge O'Neil realized that this didn't excuse the crime, but it did explain it. So the judge told Lenny that he would have to pay back his victims. He even paid for business cards for Lenny that read "Have mower, will travel." Lenny mowed lawn after lawn, including those of his victims. Every two weeks, Judge O'Neil wrote Lenny an encouraging letter.
The victims were so pleased with Lenny's work that they told him they didn't need any further restitution. His grades went back up. And those letters of encouragement? Lenny used them to cover the bloodstains on his bedroom wall.
It's a wonderful story of healing and restoration -- victims cared for, a kid saved from the endless cycle of crime. But of course, busy judges cannot get involved with every young lawbreaker the way Judge O'Neil did. And that's where the church comes in. If a judge is going to do more than simply lock kids up, he needs committed volunteers. He needs people willing to help determine the type of community service a juvenile should perform, and make sure he performs it. Most important of all, volunteers can restore what Judge O'Neil calls "a cycle of normalcy" to a teenager's life. They do this by modeling appropriate ways of dealing with anger and by demonstrating what healthy marriages look like. They share family meals with kids, and they invite them to church.
This March, Prison Fellowship is holding a conference to teach the Christian view of justice. And I hope you'll consider attending. You'll learn about restorative justice and how your church can work to fight crime, restoring both victim and offender, and bringing shalom -- God's true peace -- to the community.