While ministering to people who are incarcerated in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, we discovered that most were eventually released to their communities — our communities. Addressing recidivism was the real challenge. After being incarcerated for many years, how do you help a person find housing, transportation, and employment? How, if needed, do you help them re-connect with their family?

While grappling with these questions I was introduced to some State Corrections employees who were working with something I had never heard of — Restorative Justice.

Our Western legal system was founded on a retributive approach: impose punishment as a deterrent to crime. As society developed, rehabilitation was added to reduce recidivism. Restorative justice programs aim to place key decisions in the hands of those most affected by crime and to make justice more healing to reduce the likelihood of future offenses. 

The Archdiocese of Dubuque developed two avenues to accomplish this. First, a mentor is assigned to a single person who is being released from prison of the same gender and agrees to meet weekly to set and achieve goals. The mentor is seen as a teacher, a listener, a role model, and a coach. The mentor provides support to resist relapse into old habits and lifestyles. Mentoring is an effective way to help establish positive relationships with family and faith communities.

The second approach is through a Circle of Support and Accountability (CoSA). In this Circle, a small group of volunteers, both male and female, work with a formerly incarcerated individual to provide a healthy and supportive relationship, opening an avenue for restoration and healing of those impacted by crime. A Circle always includes the individual's mentor who is also supported by the group. Over time, Circle members become trusted friends and a source of positive, confidential, support.

Deacon Tom Lang sits in a peacemaking circle

One blessing came early in my ministry while working with a couple, whom I will call Joe and Maria, who had two young children. They were each struggling with addiction, but had different needs that were addressed through separate circles.

Maria loved her children and wanted to be a good mother. She was fearful that her addiction would cause her to lose them. With the support of her CoSA and a series of miraculous events (in my estimation), I found her a Drug Rehab Center, which offered a free grant to attend their program.

Today, she is drug free, and after attending a local junior college, fully employed. Both of her children are in college. God is Good!

A benefit of having our system of Catholic parishes throughout the Archdiocese is that we can respond to the needs of any formerly incarcerated individual returning to almost any location in our jurisdiction. Within each parish, there are usually caring individuals we can recruit and train to serve as mentors and circle members. While we continue to offer visitation and services in our institutions, the bulk of our current 160-plus volunteers work with these Restorative Justice programs.

Our ministry is not perfect. We continue to take steps forward and steps backward. We are deeply saddened when a man or woman with whom we work relapses, or worse, dies from a drug overdose. I have lost four friends to drug overdoses.

We continually seek the help of the Holy Spirit and have been blessed in many ways. Many dioceses are blessed with their own successful Jail and Prison Ministry programs. For those dioceses interested in teaching Restorative Justice principles, I would encourage them to do so.

Just begin. God will be with you.