Thoughts on restorative justice

I just read The Little Book of Restorative Justice, by Howard Zehr, which provides a nice overview of the philosophy and principles of restorative justice. I had seen this term several places recently but did not know exactly what it meant. After reading this book and exploring some websites on the topic, I now have a better understanding of what restorative justice is. Overall, I think it is an exciting and positive direction for justice to be taking, but there are a few aspects I am slightly uncomfortable with.

First of all, what is restorative justice? Below, I will give an overview of what I see as the key points, but if you wish to read more about it, I recommend this article and Restorative Justice Online.

Given that much has been written about it, it is not easy to summarize in a few words. In his book, Zehr provides one possible working definition:

Restorative justice is a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.

One of the key philosophical underpinnings is that crime is a violation of individuals and relationships, rather than an offense against the state. The criminal justice system essentially ignores some of the major “stakeholders” in a crime; that is, the victim and immediate community, focusing entirely on making sure the offender gets what they deserve. Restorative justice, on the other hand, aims to address victim and offender needs and to involve the immediate stakeholders in an effort to “put things right.” Zehr lists the key questions that direct criminal justice versus restorative justice:

Criminal justice:

  • What laws have been broken?
  • Who did it?
  • What do they deserve?

Restorative justice:

  • Who has been hurt?
  • What are their needs?
  • Whose obligations are these?

The lens through which restorative justice looks at crime resonates with me as a much more productive way of handling crime than criminal justice. I am extremely uncomfortable with the criminal justice system. It is built around the concept of punishment, of giving people what they deserve. It makes little effort to help criminals transform into productive members of society, and it makes little effort to help victims heal and feel safe in their community. As Zehr points out, this attitude towards crime arises in part from the fact that criminal justice treats crime as an offense against the impersonal state – the breaking of laws. But in fact, crime is about individuals – one individual harmed another individual in some manner – and for true healing to occur it needs to be viewed through this lens. This is what restorative justice attempts to do.

One of the key aspects of a restorative justice approach is a facilitated encounter between victim and offender. This can take a few different formats, but the general goal is the same: to facilitate dialog between the victim and the offender and possibly community or family members. This allows each individual to express feelings in a safe space, allows the victim to receive answers to questions they may have, provides an opportunity for the offender to empathize with the victim, and provides a place for everyone to come to an agreement on an acceptable outcome. I must admit I am slightly skeptical about how a direct encounter can be healthy and helpful, particularly in a case where violence was involved. However, I read some case studies linked from the Restorative Justice Online website and it seems that it can indeed be a powerful and positive experience for both victim and offender. It does make sense to me, psychologically speaking, that it can be helpful to the victim’s healing process to be able to directly ask questions of the offender, if they can do so while feeling safe, and that it can help the offender understand the effect of their crime.

One thing I especially like about restorative justice is that it emphasizes respect for everyone, including the offender. The goal is not to stigmatize or antagonize the offender, but to help everyone heal. One of the many problems I see in the criminal justice system is that it uses an us vs. them model, placing the offender on the defensive. This is naturally going to make the offender angry towards the state and community, and does not encourager him or her to explore or address the causes of his/her behavior. In a restorative justice approach, the offender is encouraged to work on self-transformation and healing. This approach recognizes that offenders are human also, and may also have been hurt in the past.

The idea of dialog, or a “circle,” to discuss and resolve the offense makes a lot of sense to me, perhaps because I was raised in a family that held family meetings. When a conflict arose in our family, we discussed it civilly in a meeting, each having the opportunity to share their side of the story, and then coming to a resolution that everyone was happy with. The leap from the relatively trivial conflicts in my family to a situation where a murder has occurred is a little difficult for me to make, however. I like the concept that everyone is involved in addressing, understanding, and resolving the harmful behavior, but it is hard for me to understand exactly how it works and how it is effective for physically harmful behavior without seeing it in action.

One aspect of restorative justice that I am slightly uncomfortable with is the use of the phrase “obligations.” I am not sure why it bothers me; when Zehr breaks it down into the specific ways in which obligations come in to play, it makes sense. The offender has an obligation to make some sort of reparation towards their victim, and the community has an obligation to help both the victim and the offender to heal, and to work on preventing similar crimes in the future. Actually, I think it is the first part that bothers me, the obligation of the offender towards their victim. I don’t like the term because it sounds too close to requiring the offender to do something to “pay” for the crime, that is, to close to punishment. I don’t think this is the intention with the use of the word, but that is the association it evokes for me.

I also find that there is not enough of a focus on offender rehabilitation in restorative justice as I understand it. Zehr mentions several times the importance of addressing the needs of the offender, including the cause of the crime and what they need to not repeat the offense, but each time he mentions it, it sounds like an afterthought. The primary focus of restorative justice seems to be the needs of the victim. I agree that this is important, but I think the needs of the offender are equally important for repairing the break in relationships and for creating a safe community. I do not think that someone who has committed a crime can truly empathize and be able to re-integrate into the community until they receive rehabilitive help. People who commit crimes have most likely been harmed in some way in the past, and they need to heal from that past harm before they will be able to become fully productive members of society. Thus, I think that helping the offender heal is absolutely crucial in an effective justice system, and I do not feel that restorative justice focuses quite enough on that, at least as layed out by Zehr. However, it may be that in practice, it often does address the offender needs, or is completed by a program directed at that.

Restorative justice as it is currently used in practice, at least in this country, is often a complement to a traditional criminal justice process, rather than a substitute. I certainly think this is a step in the right direction, but I have radical ideals. I would do away with the criminal justice system, and particularly the prison system, in its entirety. I believe that the only reason to lock someone up is as a restraint of someone who is violent. However, we should be giving that person rehabilitation at the same time, to help them become less violent and able to reenter society. I believe that punishment is completely counter-productive. It will only serve to antagonize the offender and do them further psychological harm. Criminals need to be seen as troubled human beings who need help, and as a possible symptom of a larger societal problem (e.g. poverty), rather than as monsters to be put in their place. I believe that restorative justice is definitely one part of what is needed to implement this approach to crime.

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