Restorative Justice


From the Web site of the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, these statements about its restorative justice conferencing process:

Justice. Faster.

Transforming conflict into cooperation

Responding to destructive behavior in constructive ways

Positive relationships build safer schools

Using conflict to build community

After my earlier post about retributive justice, a friend suggested the desire for punishment is fed not only by having been wronged oneself but also by sympathy with the victim. She acknowledged also the common desire to see and feel that wrongs get repaid, that offenses fall back hard upon the offender. We chafe at the thought that offenders may get away with their crimes and so be able to laugh at their victims and take pride in remaining untouched by the harm they have done. Quite naturally, we want them touched and touched hard. We long for them to rue the day they hurt their victims. Crime is not supposed to pay.

The modern movement of restorative justice seeks to heal and restore, as much as possible, all affected by the offense: victim and offender both but also the others hurt including family and friends of both victim and offender. Whole neighborhoods and communities are harmed by, say, a rash of home invasions. People’s sense of security is shattered because their personal space has been violated or threatened. They no longer feel safe in their own homes or, for victims of rape or other abuse, in their own bodies. Their homes may feel dangerous to them or their bodies stolen. They have been robbed of control over what is supposed to be their own. They may even come to despise what they should be able to cherish – their homes or their bodies.

What could be worse than having your child hurt (or killed) criminally? There may be something worse: having your child be the one who did the harm. Crime brings grief upon both those who care for the victim and those who care for the offender. Restorative justice begins with the acknowledgment that crime breaks far more than the law.

The restorative justice movement is not a single entity but many. Howard Zehr likens it to the many streams that flow together to form a river (The Little Book of Restorative Justice, p. 61f). While cautious about either/or contrasts between the restorative and the retributive as practiced under the rule of law, Zehr says restorative justice asks questions that differ from those of retributive justice, and I find that the questions we ask about any important matter affect greatly the lenses we choose to examine that matter, the needs we recognize, the resolutions we seek, and the outcomes we will celebrate or lament. Zehr identifies the guiding questions of any restorative justice process as these (38):

1. Who has been hurt?
2. What are their needs?
3. Whose obligations are these?
4. Who has a stake in this situation?
5. What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to put things right?

Retributive justice under the rule of law (rather than blood revenge or vigilantism) focuses upon crimes and other offenses as rule breaking. The offending behavior has violated some code, standard, or rule. Zehr’s very first guiding question leads the quest for justice in another, more personal direction: not, “What rule has been broken?” but, “Who has been hurt?” We need not follow that question very far before realizing that while the immediate and obvious victim is a person not a rule, the list of people hurt may include the perpetrator as well as the victim plus friends and family of each plus a community.

Consider a case of bullying in school. Who has been hurt? Obviously, the bullied child has. What about the victim’s family members? Friends and classmates of the victim? Perhaps a teacher whose teaching has been disrupted and class made fearful or (worse) gleeful over the bullying? The bully? The bully’s family and friends? Does the bully realize the harm the bullying has done to him or her? Does the behavior arise from harm previously done to the bully?

I view school “zero tolerance” policies as cop-outs, abdications of adult responsibility, and violations of the trust students and their families should be able to have in the adults responsible for fairness and safety. In a school system with which I was familiar for years, students who gained street cred from being suspended would taunt “good kids” into fights because the district had a policy that whenever there was a fight, both fighters would be suspended, even if the victim did not actually fight back. Did anyone really think justice was being done? In some cases, the policy produced real-life, painful versions of the old joke, “Mom, I didn’t start it; Billy hit me on the knuckles with his chin.” Who sees justice when the victim of taunting, spitting, and punching or hair pulling is suspended and kicked out of the honor society while the bully gets desired time off from school, enhanced street cred, and laughs shared with friends over the success of getting the “good kid” punished?

From a YouTube video presentation (“Better Justice”) offered by Lauren Abramson, executive director of the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, I took the following notes on the center’s conferencing process and its order of events:

1. The offender goes first to tell what happened, as he or she recalls it.
2. All share how they have been affected by what happened. This process can and does become very emotional.
3. All involved work out together what they think needs to be done (a) to make this situation better and (b) to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

From whatever desire for payback is within us, skepticism almost surely arises. The more we see people as resistant to change (or even as types of greater or lesser value), standards as of primary importance, leniency as moral failure, and punishment as the right response to offenses, the stronger that skepticism is likely to be. But – the Community Conferencing Center reports that 98% of their conferences result in written agreements to which all involved in the conferencing have signed on, and there has been greater than 95% compliance with those agreements. Interestingly, conferencing also costs far less than court trials.

Can the process be played? In his short book cited above, Zehr suggests potential for misuse of restorative justice procedures, but what human system need not be vigilant about preventing abuse? I think that the more we believe or at least hope people can change, see healing as preferable to punishment and as the right goal for punishment, recognize that rules and laws exist for people and communities and not the other way around (Jesus, “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath”), and value reconciliation over payback, the more we become open to restorative justice.

A few resources on restorative justice:

The Community Conferencing Center Web site

Centre for Justice and Reconciliation

Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice

Ted Wachtel, Real Justice

Lauren Abramson’s YouTube videos

There are many more.

Next: Restorative justice is one higher form of justice biblically. There is, however, another high form not so often recognized as biblical: distributive justice. If the thought of restorative justice can offend the virtuous who “want to see some punishment” and maybe even eternal punishment, the very idea of distributive justice challenges the orders of power and privilege in human societies and so can infuriate the “haves” in society. For next time: “the Mosaic revolution” (as Walter Brueggemann calls it) known as distributive justice.