The Utah legislature’s passage of SB 103 Victim Targeting Penalty Enhancements is one important step toward building a safer society in Utah. Enhancing the penalties for crimes designed to strike fear in an entire community sends a strong message. However, the message is meaningless without offender programming that addresses the deep-seated prejudices that lead to criminal behavior against minority groups.
During the debate on SB 103 in the Senate, Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, repeatedly noted that the bill will not solve the problem of crimes based on irrational hatred rooted in prejudice. He correctly explained that preventing victim targeting begins at home. The Diocese of Salt Lake City agrees. We encourage parents to use the passage of SB 103 to remind their children that it is wrong to call others derogatory names based on perceived characteristics, throw things or otherwise assault fellow students because of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability or other protected characteristic, or generally assume a superiority to others.
For those who commit crimes based on a long-standing sense of such superiority, SB 103 opens an opportunity to our prisons and jails. Rather than just punishing offenders, correctional facilities could intentionally engage inmates in restorative justice practices that seek to care for the injury caused by the offender, and within the offender.
Restorative justice is based in the fundamental reality that all people exist in a web of relationships and all persons are not just generic beings, but have a place within any society. In this view of humanity, justice is not just about retribution, but about restoring relationships, focusing first on those most harmed – the victims, – then the community at large, and then the offender.
Common methods used in restorative justice settings include peacemaking circles and Victim-Offender Dialogues. Indigenous communities have used peacemaking circles for generations to address conflict and live in right-relationship with one another. Circles can be used in instances of harm, but also for storytelling, learning, and community building.
Victim-Offender Dialogue is a facilitated encounter that brings together the person or persons responsible for a harm, persons directly affected, as well as family members and support people. Together, the group explores the impacts of the harm done and what needs to be done to make things right.
Restorative justice answers Pope Francis’ call to develop practices of a “humanizing, genuinely reconciling justice.” He explains that this is “the great challenge that we all must face together, so that the measures adopted against evil are not satisfied by restraining, dissuading and isolating the many who have caused it, but also helps them to reflect, to travel the paths of good, to be authentic persons who, removed from their own hardships, become merciful themselves.”
The power of these methods is clear in the tales of those who participate in restorative justice with incarcerated individuals. Offenders who are able to engage in conversation with victims often come to a deeper understanding of how their actions effected not only the specific victim, but also the parents, spouses, children, neighbors, fellow congregants, etc. Looking someone in the eyes and hearing the widespread devastation a single act of violence creates is a powerful learning moment.
Many offenders also confront their own histories of victimization, and the hatred, depression, and other often long-simmering emotions the offender has never fully addressed before incarceration. In addition, they have the opportunity to hear other victims express the same range of feelings.
SB 103 is important public policy, but it is just one stop on a long road to reducing crimes based on prejudice and bias. We urge all Utahns to take full advantage of this teaching moment to discuss the prejudices that lead us to forget that every human being has equal value and to advocate for restorative justice within our corrections system.
Jean Hill is government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.