Restorative Justice

Howard Zehr is widely recognized as a major restorative justice pioneer (Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice and The Little Book of Restorative Justice); he utilizes the metaphor of restorative justice as a river, with its source as a spring that is then fed by countless streams. Zehr writes of a variety of indigenous traditions and current adaptations that draw upon those traditions: family group conferences adapted from Maori traditions in New Zealand, for example; sentencing circles from aboriginal communities in the Canadian north; Navajo peacemaking courts; African customary law; or the Afghani practice of jirga. The field of mediation and conflict resolution feeds into that river, as do the victims’ rights movements, and alternatives-to-prison movements of the past decades. A variety of religious traditions flow into this river.

An overview (taken from explains that: “Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour. It is best accomplished when the parties themselves meet cooperatively to decide how to do this. [Although other approaches may be used when that is not possible. Sometimes these meetings] lead to transformation of people, relation- ships, and communities.”

Notice three big ideas:

  • Repair—crime causes harm and justice requires repairing that harm
  • Encounter—the best way to determine how to do that is to have the parties decide together
  • Transformation—this can cause fundamental changes in people, relationships, and communities

The Differences between Retributive Justice and Restorative Justice

Rather than seeing them as opposing we can simply say that each system asks different questions, and therefore there are different consequences and outcomes. Retributive justice (the current criminal justice system) asks the questions: What laws have been broken? Who did it? What do they deserve?

Restorative justice asks the questions: Who has been harmed or hurt? What do they need? Whose obligations and responsibilities are these? Who has a stake in this situation? What is the process that can involve the stakeholders in finding a solution?

Howard Zehr notes how restorative justice argues that what truly vindicates is acknowledgment of victims’ harms and needs, combined with an active effort to encourage offenders to take responsibility, make right the wrongs, and address the causes of their behavior. Currently, restorative justice practices are often offered as choices within or alongside the existing legal system. Of note is that since 1989, New Zealand has made restorative justice the hub of its entire juvenile justice system.

A Personal Account of Restorative Justice

My early exposure to this concept and application of restorative justice a decade or so ago came through my study and practice of nonviolent communication, developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, and then in the last few years by being a volunteer at my local community restorative justice center, and also by undertaking training and practice in a process called restorative circles, pioneered by Dominic Barter in Brazil.

The process model of nonviolent communication spoke directly to me of the way human beings have been educated to think and speak over thousands of years. It showed me that our habitual lens and mode of relating is characterized by a language and system of dominance; power is unevenly distributed so some have more external power than others. In this system there are winners and losers, there is good and bad, right and wrong, and there are those who place themselves or are placed in authority positions to decide on that. Our education, political, economic, health, legal, and corrections systems are all based on that.

In the life-serving system that nonviolent communication is pointing to in its approach, we are not focusing through the lens of what is right or wrong or who will win and who will lose, but through the lens of what serves life—and life is flowing through every life-form on this planet.

It reflects the natural intelligence of life to know how to course correct and bring itself back into dynamic balance and harmony (one that is evolving, not static), if we learn how to listen and follow the guidance! When we look through the lens of what is life serving, we immediately enter a world of interdependence, of relationship, and understand our connectedness in the web of life—that we cannot just meet our own needs at the expense of others.

Responsibility and accountability are key concepts and practices here. When an imbalance has occurred it is usually because someone has tried to meet their own needs at the expense of others. This does not only happen at the individual level, but it is modeled by many corporations and institutions at the macrolevel. Sadly we do not see much responsibility or accountability here in relation to the common good, or the good of the whole.

I like to think of restorative justice as not only serving as an alternative to the criminal justice system, but one that applies to all our human systems and endeavors, internally and externally. This is why I have been very drawn to one of the tributaries that feed the restorative justice river: that of restorative circles, pioneered by Dominic Barter in the shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro and that now continues to spread, both in Brazil and internationally.

Restorative circles (RC) is a process for individuals and communities to address conflict in ways that restore connections on profound levels. Within an intentional dialogue of people with equal power—even if outside the circle their power is not equal—participants invite each other and attend voluntarily. A very precise process is used to restore connection out of which agreed actions can arise. The circles bring the profoundly openhearted clarity and tangible power-sharing dynamics of nonviolent communication to restorative practices.

The dialogue process is shared openly and is guided by a community member. Key concepts and practices here are shared power, mutual understanding, self-responsibility, and effective action. Ideally they happen within and are supported by a restorative system, one in which there are agreed-upon structures that allow a group to care for and take ownership of its conflict. Any group of people (families, schools, workplaces, communities, and such) can decide to become a restorative system, and learn to use restorative circles as their only response to conflict or as another option alongside already existing approaches to conflict.

Lastly, I’ll speak from the very personal experience of being a member of a COSA for two and a half years. COSA stands for circle of support and accountability, and it can be offered through a restorative justice center (such as the one in my hometown in Vermont) to returning offenders when they are attempting to reenter the community, sometimes after many years in jail.

I, along with three colleagues, have been the COSA for a core member: for a year while he was still in jail, and then for one and a half years since his release on parole. I would say that relationship is the key word here. For the first year it was very hard for him to understand why we would be willing to volunteer our time for him, such was his self-image and his habitual mode of thinking that was steeped in “deserve” thinking from our prevailing culture.

Gradually over the months, as we have fulfilled our role both of support and holding him accountable, meeting weekly with additional ad hoc visits and support, he has come to see us as a deeply valued and essential bridge, without which he is sure he would have been back in jail by now. (Recidivism, meaning offenders returning to jail again and again, is a profoundly worrying statistic in the United States, not to mention the astronomical cost to the nation.) Through the AA meetings and community that makes up a large part of his current social life, he has found a way to contribute, and to begin the journey of feeling that he has worth and value.

I’ll end this article with a quote from The Freedom Project, which I had the privilege to train with a number of years ago. It is a non- profit organization that does wonderful restorative work with returning offenders in Seattle, Washington. For me their work epitomizes an understanding of how the web of life can only be rewoven through restoring relationship and recognizing our interconnectedness and interdependence.

“The Freedom Project strengthens community through supporting the transformation of prisoners into peacemakers. We offer training in concrete skills of nonviolence leading to reconciliation with ourselves, our loved ones, and the community. Our work addresses the healing of relationships ruptured by violence and the forging of community founded on genuine safety through connection.”

Wendy Webber