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On Restorative Justice – Jonathan Derby Digs Deeper in Discussion with Host of “Mornings with Carmen LaBerge”

August 30, 2022

Jonathan Derby, restorative justice advocate, author and special advisor to Prison Fellowship International, joined host Carmen LaBerge on Faith Radio’s Mornings with Carmen LaBerge to share more about his vision for restorative justice and how Prison Fellowship International is making that vision a reality for prisoners and their families, victims and communities across the world.  

An idea that may seem foreign to many due to its radical difference from society’s standards, restorative justice is an alternative approach to understanding and responding to crime. In the prison context, restorative justice emphasizes the harm done to people, relationships and communities, instead of focusing on retribution and punishment. It gives offenders the chance to right the wrongs and repair the harm they have caused rather than dehumanizing and isolating them. 

To hear Jonathan and Carmen’s discussion, click play to listen or read the transcript (below). You can also listen to the interview, along with other segments and programs, on Faith Radio.  


[00:00:00] Carmen LaBerge: When we think about incarceration, when you think about people who are in jails and prisons in the United States, what do you think that number is? How many people do you think are incarcerated in the United States? 

2 million people incarcerated in prisons and jails in the United States of America. Do you know one of them? Do you know someone currently incarcerated? Do you know someone formerly incarcerated? 2 million people in U.S. jails and prisons is a 500% increase over the past 40 years. So not only is our culture rife with crime, which we do talk about, and our criminal justice system not working equally for everyone, which we also talk about, we have to acknowledge at some point that what we’re doing is not working. Yet we seem to be slow to implement change that would really prove redemptive. Prison Fellowship [International] has been on the forefront of this conversation, not only here in the United States, but globally and Prison Fellowship [International] works with a range of partners in a conversation about changing the whole way we do this. 

What would restorative justice look like working in prisons and through prisons, that the process might become actually one of correction and repair and not just punishment and despair. What would it look like to have a holistic approach? Joining us next to cast the vision for restorative justice is Jonathan Derby. 

Joining us now, Jonathan Derby. He works with Prison Fellowship International and he’s joining us today to cast a vision and invite us into restorative justice. You can find what we’re talking about, and resources related to it at Jonathan, welcome to mornings with Carmen. 

[00:01:49] Jonathan Derby: Thank you very much. Good to be here.  

[00:01:51] Carmen LaBerge: All right. So, what’s the problem you’re trying to solve and then what’s the vision?  

[00:01:57] Jonathan Derby: The problem, I guess, or I don’t know if it’s a problem, but really the vision that we’re trying to cast is a different way of looking at justice. Restorative justice really sees justice as healing. 

When we’re responding to crime, traditionally, we think of justice more in a retributive approach. So, crime happens when someone breaks the law and justice requires punishment. Generally, from this paradigm, this more retributive paradigm, three questions are central: what law was broken, who broke the law, and what is the punishment? 

As we know, crime is more than law breaking. When someone commits crime, people are hurt. It breaks down relationships, it breaks down our families and even communities. Restorative justice is a paradigm that looks more at the harm and so three different questions are central to this paradigm: what is the harm, how do we repair the harm, and who has responsibility to repair the harm?  

When you talk about vision, what I really love is this idea of Shalom and really, biblical justice drawing us closer to Shalom. So many people think of Shalom as peace, but really, it’s much broader than that. Shalom is God’s vision for His kingdom on Earth here and now, where we’re living in right relationship with God, our neighbor and creation. When Jesus prays, “Your kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven,” He’s praying for a kingdom that reflects the Shalom, that vision that God wants here on Earth and restorative justice, or justice should bring us closer to this vision.  

[00:03:37] Carmen LaBerge: I appreciate all of that, Jonathan, and I understand that, and then there’s people listening right now who are like, “Okay, there’s real people in real gangs breaking into real houses and hurting real people and stealing real stuff right now in real communities across the real United States of America,” and so I think that part of the challenge is understanding that what you’re talking about is at the identity and belonging level, so that people can have a different kind of hope and understand themselves completely differently.  

This is a transformation of a person from understanding themselves, seeing themselves as a criminal in a gang with no hope other than the criminal lifestyle and belong to a group of people who are like-minded, to actually seeing themselves differently. When you talk about restorative justice, you’re actually talking about a restoration of the identity of the person and giving them a new vision for understanding themselves their worth, their value, their belonging, their purpose in life. Am I right?  

[00:04:40] Jonathan Derby: Ultimately, it starts there, right? It starts with a change for the person: that person kind of taking off the old clothes, putting on the new clothes or the new self. That change in identity is important, but from that, there also needs to flow, from a very practical perspective, dealing with the broken relationships that have occurred from the crime as well. Taking steps to first understand the harm that you’ve done, that’s an important part of restorative justice, is really understanding the harm that you’ve caused, not only to your direct victims, but also to your family members, to other people in the community, and then to take active steps to, as much as possible, make things right, or to bring healing and repair into those situations.  

So yes, it starts with that inner transformation no doubt, but it’s got to move beyond that and impact the relationships or the harm that’s come about from any behavior that has caused harm.  

[00:05:41] Carmen LaBerge: So, talk with us about how you envision the experience of someone entering prison here in the United States, how you see their experience changing? What are the resources or the constellation of resources that would be brought to bear? Because right now, we’re basically talking about a process of warehousing people in a system that is not restorative, and it’s overcrowded and all we keep doing is building newer and better prisons to keep them increasingly segregated from one another. 

Talk with us about how do we get from where we are to this vision of restorative justice and a process that would actually produce different outcomes.  

[00:06:21] Jonathan Derby: Like you mentioned, we can talk about tough on crime, but imprisonment isn’t helping the people who are incarcerated and it’s not helping our communities. It’s not making them more safe. Going on that, prisons are designed to control and strip away people’s dignity, right? They are places of violence and violence breeds violence so people who live in this culture, they become worse off when they are released. They’re tagged with a criminal label that follows them. It’s difficult for them to get jobs, find a place to live and they probably haven’t dealt with these underlying issues that contributed to the crime. They’re coming from these isolated, violent cultures, entering into a world where people don’t accept them, and they likely don’t have very many relationships that they can rely upon once they leave prison. 

 I believe, kind of going to your point, that prisons need to reorient themselves around the question: “What does this person need to heal and to live productively within the community?” This question needs to drive a person’s incarceration experience when they’re in prison and plan for even before a person starts prison. 

One of the beautiful models, and it would be foreign to us here in the U.S because it’s such a different system, but in Brazil, there’s the APAC (Association for the Protection and Assistance of the Condemned) restorative prison model. Our Prison Fellowship affiliate now has been instrumental in spreading it there and it’s a methodology that really calls crime as a tragic and violent refusal to love, right? Humans were made to love and we’re most fulfilled in being in relationship with other people and with God. The place where we should be taught to love is our families, but when our families fail to do that, it results in crime. 

The way the whole prison model is set up is really to teach people who are in prison to love themselves, each other, their families and communities. It treats prisoners with respect, there’s no prison guards, they’ve got keys to the prison, and it’s had a traumatic effect. 

They call the people “recuperandos” which are people who are recovering from crime, so not even a prisoner. This whole idea and attitude change, not like we can do that overnight here, but I feel like we can bring in these ideas and principles incrementally into our prison system to have a much better impact on the people who are incarcerated and our communities and families. 

[00:08:49] Carmen LaBerge: It’s a completely different vision for how those who are incarcerated might experience not just punishment for their crime, but a real life change. How prisons might actually become places where people regain their dignity, understand themselves differently, understand the harm that they have done and really grow as human beings to reenter society where they might have healthy social relationships and restore things, not only for themselves, but their families and the communities where they have previously done harm.  

So, what does that look like? How might it happen? What are the resources that need to be brought to bear? We’re going to continue our conversation with Jonathan Derby. You can find the resources we are talking about today at 

Restorative justice is an initiative of Prison Fellowship International. We’re talking with Jonathan Derby about it now. If you go to the website and download the resources, one of the things you’re going to find is programs offered through Prison Fellowship [International] that are delivered at the local level in culturally appropriate ways that work toward outcomes of long term transformation and stability for prisoners. Jonathan, how about we talk about some of those. Talk about the tangible things that happen with and for those who are incarcerated to bring about the kinds of transformation you’re advocating.  

[00:10:10] Jonathan Derby: We have 110 national ministries that we partner with around the world and they are the ones that are carrying out these programs. We have first The Prisoner’s Journey and the idea there is, as we talked about in the first section, is really to help people who are incarcerated form new identities, know Jesus so they see themselves as God’s beloved children rather than ” criminals are bad people.” We also have The Sycamore Tree Project which is our signature restorative justice program. It’s focused on people who are incarcerated, but really the idea there is to help develop empathy, within them for all the people that they’ve hurt, including their family members, and really to kind of teach them restorative justice principles, and then it starts them on the journey to repairing harm.  

You also talked about the importance of relationships that people who are incarcerated have with people outside of prison, because prison isolates people with their families, with churches. So, we have The Child’s Journey and that provides for the safety, health, education, spiritual care needs of children whose parents are incarcerated, whose loved one is incarcerated, but it also connects them with their incarcerated parents.  

All of our programs connect and foster those strong relationships between people who are incarcerated with volunteers, churches, so prisoners, when they leave prison, they can rely upon these positive relationships rather than returning to unhealthy relationships that might have contributed to their offending behavior to begin with. 

These are our main programs and really, I think the church is so core in this work. And I think obviously within ourselves as Christians, but the church, we really need to sensitize ourselves to the needs of people who are incarcerated starting in prison, but especially as they leave prison learning to really embrace and welcome them because it’s so hard as they transition back into the community with the obstacles that they face. 

[00:12:12] Carmen LaBerge: So, talk with us, Jonathan, about how you would encourage us. Most of the people listening right now are not incarcerated. I actually do know that we have some incarcerated folks listening right now. One person, he’s never going to leave the prison system. He’s going to be there for the rest of his life. Talk with us, first of all, about a vision of ministry for him in the prison context and then also talk with those of us on the outside. How might we change the way we feel and think about those who have been formally incarcerated and actually help them integrate into our communities of faith and into our communities when they are released? 

[00:12:53] Jonathan Derby: Regarding the first one, there’s going to be the change, just developing the relationship with God and with Jesus, but more, there’s such a need for peace, even within the prison context. Prisons are also communities and so having a restorative mindset, more of a healing mindset, is very important with relationships with other people who are imprisoned, with prison officials. Even in our studies that we’ve done on The Prisoner’s Journey and then other studies around the world with The Sycamore Tree Project, our work changes prison cultures to make them more peaceful. For people who are incarcerated, just to know and understand that truly they are not defined by their worst acts, but they are God’s beloved children and to take this as a call into the prison.  

[00:13:39] Carmen LaBerge: We love the vision that you’re casting. We certainly appreciate all that’s going on in and through the ministry of Prison Fellowship [International]. That’s Jonathan Derby. 

Connecting the dots here between some of the conversations that we have had today. If those who are incarcerated is the place where God is calling you to not only pray, but also serve, Prison Fellowship [International] is a great ministry to engage with. 

I get it. Those of you who are texting in, “Doesn’t seem like Jonathan gets it,” in terms of what’s going on, fear in the culture, how does he feel about early release programs, repeat offenders, people who don’t want to be transformed? Yeah, I totally get the challenge that we’re facing as a culture in relationship to crime. Acutely aware of it and distressed by it. 

We have had guests in the past who’ve talked about policing and the challenge that police officers face now and law enforcement officers. We have a problem. I mean, I think we should be able to talk freely about the challenges that we’re facing and the broken system that we have. I guess I’m also hopeful that we will have creative solutions to the problems that we face and not just suggest that we can continue locking up a greater and greater percentage of people and not actually offering them anything restorative and redemptive while they are incarcerated. 

I am looking for those who are incarcerated to have a different experience so that we have different outcomes. Fresh ideas related to this that would produce transformation, certainly appreciate. If you got ideas about it, great stuff going on, where you are, pass ’em along. 


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