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What could a map have to do with restorative justice?

A few years ago I joined some members of my church to think together about mass incarceration. One of the participants in our group was a returning citizen, a man who had served time and was trying to re-establish himself in the community. I asked him about the greatest challenge he faced when he got out of prison, fully expecting that he’d point to finding employment, housing, or another specific need – and indeed those were real challenges for him. But his first response was more straightforward: he just couldn’t find basic information about services that are friendly to men and women when they get out of prison. Much of that information is fragmented or inaccessible, and of course he was unlikely to benefit from services he didn’t know existed. 

He was unlikely to benefit from services he didn’t know existed

That suggested a project for the Henry Institute, a research-and-engagement center I direct at Calvin University. Jason VanHorn, my colleague in the Geography Department, and I enlisted a team of students to identify and centralize information about available services for justice-involved people and then display those services on an intuitive, web-based map. The map includes information about housing, employment, counseling, legal needs, and financial empowerment, among other resources, and it has all the bells-and-whistles that modern mapping applications provide. We started small – just a single county in west Michigan – but soon the Michigan Department of Corrections heard about our work and decided to support an expansion to the entire state. We’ve now mapped the most populous counties and we’re moving on to other regions. Perhaps we’ll even grow the map to other states in the future. 

We started small – just a single county in west Michigan 

The map is used not only by returning citizens and their families, but also parole and probation agents, non-profit leaders, social workers, employers, and many others. It also gives Calvin scholars a window into a range of research questions. Our team often talks about “service deserts,” and we’re exploring where they are and why they exist – with the hope, of course, that stakeholders can use our research to target services better. 

Why do we do the work? It reflects our conviction at the Henry Institute that we can serve as scholars – that we can put high-quality and technical research to public good. In this case, that good is rooted in a broader commitment to restorative justice at Calvin University. Advocates for restorative justice urge us to move beyond thinking that confronting crime or other forms of conflict means simply punishing people for breaking the rules. We are also called to seek ways to restore people to each other, even amid great harm. So the map is one part of a much more complex effort at restoration.

We are also called to seek ways to restore people to each other, even amid great harm. 

You can learn more about Calvin’s overall efforts in seeking restorative justice at Calvin's website, where you’ll have access to the map itself (click on “Returning Citizens Services”). And don’t miss the following blog posts, in which two members of our stellar student-team reflect on what they’ve learned through the experience.

Read Part 2 Here

Photo by oxana v on Unsplash


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