SAN DIEGO — Last April, Cardinal Robert W. McElroy and Dr. Robert Ehnow, director of the diocesan Office for Life, Peace and Justice, were the opening speakers at the Catholic Criminal Justice Reform Network’s inaugural conference.
The event was held at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.
Now, almost a year later, the same duo will participate in one of the first regional follow-ups to that national conference.
The event, hosted by the diocesan Office for Life, Peace and Justice in conjunction with the University of San Diego School of Law and the USD Center for Restorative Justice, will be held on Thursday evening, March 23, in USD’s Ministry Center Hall.
“The purpose is really to continue the dialogue from last year,” said Ehnow, who oversees detention ministry and restorative justice programs in the diocese.
He said the invitation-only event will be limited to about 100 attendees, representing various facets of the criminal justice system. These will include members of law enforcement, the legal community and academia, as well as formerly incarcerated individuals and crime victims.
The evening will include a buffet dinner; a panel discussion with Cardinal McElroy, Ehnow and Robert Schapiro, dean of USD School of Law; small group discussion; and a concluding plenary.
Ehnow said the goal is to give leaders within the criminal justice system an opportunity to hear from those who have been impacted by that same system. From this exchange of perspectives, he also hopes that possible reforms to the current U.S. justice system might be identified.
At any given time, the United States has about 2.2 million people in prison, he said. This represents about 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, even though the U.S. is home to only about 5% of the world’s population overall.
Describing the current U.S. justice system as “very punitive,” Ehnow contrasted it with an approach known as restorative justice, which has been promoted by the U.S. Catholic Bishops.
“‘Restorative justice’ is a word that’s thrown around a lot right now,” he said, “and, from my perspective, it’s really … biblical justice or faith-based justice.”
Ehnow explained that restorative justice isn’t “soft” on crime. It isn’t opposed to holding perpetrators accountable for their crimes, but goes beyond that by seeking to provide opportunities for reconciliation and forgiveness. It’s not only interested in restoring offenders back into society after they have paid their debt, but also with ensuring that victims receive the support they need to be “made whole” again.
“It’s kind of a different mindset,” Ehnow said of restorative justice, “and that’s really in line with biblical justice. Biblical justice was about holding folks accountable, but also bringing people back to the community.”