The Sycamore Tree Project is one of our most innovative approaches to ministering to those who are incarcerated, while also caring for victims of crime in our community.
This 8-week faith-based program is conducted within prisons, and provides opportunities for victims of crime to meet with inmates. The program brings people together in a safe, structured, and facilitated way to talk about their experience, how they were impacted by crime, and how the harm can be repaired or addressed.
The Sycamore Tree Project aims to move beyond punishment towards healing, by addressing past harms and preventing future damage.
The project is based on the concept of restorative justice. But what does this mean and how is it different?
While determining guilt and imposing punishment is a necessary part of criminal proceedings, restorative justice programs such as the Sycamore Tree Project are concerned with repairing the harm caused to people, relationships, and communities by crime, and seek to reduce the chance of future reoffending.
While this concept still encourages material restitution – putting things back as they should be or repaying what was lost or damaged materially – it has a stronger focus on repaired relationships.
The emphasis is on being heard, understood, having questions answered, taking responsibility, showing remorse, and contributing towards healing.
It gives victims of crime a stronger voice, and it encourages greater personal responsibility by offenders.
Why ‘The Sycamore Tree Project’?
In chapter 19 of the gospel of Luke, we read of an encounter between Zacchaeus and Jesus that took place under a sycamore tree.
Known widely as someone who had cheated others financially, Zacchaeus was invited by Jesus to share a meal together and talk.
After this encounter, Zacchaeus initiated a process of restorative justice, giving to the poor, and repaying four-times over those he had cheated.
Not only was there financial restitution, but relational restoration could also take place through this process – between Jesus and Zacchaeus, and between Zacchaeus and those he cheated, and his wider community.
Inspired by the process of restoration that took place by the sycamore tree, Prison Fellowship continues to facilitate restorative justice between prisoners and victims of crime.
Sean* believed his drug dealing did not impact the lives of others. He knew that if he stopped dealing, someone else would take his place, and so he saw no reason to change.
But when Sean came face to face with victims of crime through The Sycamore Tree Project, his views were challenged. One woman explained the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on victims. Sean also met victims of the drug trade, who had experienced armed robberies at the hands of those desperate for cash to buy drugs from someone like Sean.
After a few weeks in the program, Sean began to realise how his crimes impacted the lives of others. Through face-to-face discussions, he began to understand how victims of crime such as an armed robbery could be impacted for years afterwards. Sean began thinking seriously about his actions, and decided he needed to change.
Two years on, Sean is an advocate for the Sycamore Tree Project in the prison system. He’s also a mentor for inmates in the program.
*Name has been changed.
In addition to the relational benefits of a restorative justice approach, it also has stronger potential to reduce reoffending than other punitive measures.
Strong evidence continues to emerge that the likelihood of recidivism (reoffending) is significantly reduced for those who participate in these sorts of programs. Upon release, they are much more likely to reintegrate into local communities successfully, without returning to criminal behaviour.
Law enforcement agencies around the world are interested in how restorative justice approaches could deliver far more beneficial outcomes than current criminal justice processes.
Supporting the Sycamore Tree Project
There are many ways to support this program. Prison Fellowship welcomes prayer support, financial support, and program volunteers. Please reach out to your state office to discuss further, or donate here.
Learn more about the Sycamore Tree Project by contacting the Prison Fellowship office in your State.