What is Restorative Justice?
  • Creates a safe space for voicing the effects of crime and conflict on all involved, where they choose (especially concerning victims—who are held in equanimity as much as are perpetrators but their needs often guide the unfolding process).
  • Asks not “who dunnit” and how to punish, but rather what and/or who was harmed and how do we repair it?
  • Provides the conditions and possibility for lives to move beyond the conflict and pain associated with it.
  • Is tougher than punitive systems because it requires facing one’s part in the cycle of cause and effect and honestly seeking reparation that often matches the harm done.
  • Recognizes that there is more than an absolute identity or role that someone is playing when crime and conflict and occur, and that individuals and communities can play a proactive part in uncovering patterns that have potential to be healed or in turn to further wounding and conflict.
  • Separates the person from the action and values human life while maintaining accountability, safety, and restitution.
How does Restorative Justice Work?

Instead of asking “who did it” and “how to punish them”...

Restorative justice asks:

  • What harm was done to whom?
  • How can the harm be repaired?
  • Who is responsible for the repair?

Although it may sound like a new and emerging concept, restorative justice is not that at all. Numerous current and historical traditions, systems, and a diverse array of Indigenous practices have informed the growing awareness, implementation, and practice of restorative justice in the U.S. and beyond with astonishing results.

In the Longmont Community Justice Program in Colorado, statistics show a drop to 8% recidivism compared to 60-70% nationwide.

1Resolutonaries, Inc ( “What It Is” section

District Attorney (Boulder Co., CO) Stanley Garnett puts it simply:

"Restorative justice saves time, money, and is not just another pipe dream solution for the real problems we face."

RJ & Statistics That Don’t Lie

In the United States, organizations can be found in every state that either is well established and showing strong evidence or are getting to that point at exponential rates. A movement is growing fast.

Statistics show:

  • Significant drops in Recidivism (to as low as 8% in CO)4
  • Over 90% satisfaction rates for all involved

In addition,

  • Schools that employ restorative practices see significant drops in time spent addressing behavior.
  • Police officers note that they aren’t seeing the “usual suspects” anymore.
  • Judicial processing time and money is saved while youth are redirected away from the school-to-prison pipeline into channels that interrupt violence and harm at the core.

“(In order) to have strong, cohesive communities it is important for all legitimate interests to be understood and addressed – and for those to be addressed in a voluntary, collaborative process, not through an adversarial legal rights process. Everyone must feel included, respected and served by the process and the solution.” –Kay Pranis

[2]Live Interview/Comments, May 15, 2013, Boulder, Colorado. State Restorative Justice Council Meeting.

What are the dominant assumptions?

If you commit a crime, you incur a debt to society, you create an imbalance in the scales of justice. The only way to pay back the debt and re-balance the scales is to be given your just deserts. This is based upon the Roman, Justinian notion of “to each his due”. If you caused someone to suffer, you will be caused to suffer. If you have inflicted pain upon someone, pain will be inflicted upon you. Pain, suffering, isolation, deprivation, even death are often viewed as the only way to make right the wrong, the only way to pay back the debt and the only way to re-balance the scales.

In this sense, dominant justice may be viewed as officially-sanctioned vengeance. Instead of the person harmed who retaliates, it is our justice system that strikes back on the victim’s behalf. Our criminal justice system tends to focus on determining blame and administering pain – judging and sentencing. The retributive essence of our current system has spawned the highest absolute and per capita incarceration rates in the history of the world. Scholars speak of how it has “prisonized” the entire North American landscape. We see this phenomenon very clearly in our urban schools which are beginning to look and function more like jailhouses than schoolhouses.

However, in the last three decades, humanity has been making has been making an historic shift from a justice as harming to a justice as healing. From a retributive justice to a restorative justice.

Restorative Justice has diverse applications. It may be applied to address conflict in families, schools, communities, workplace, the justice system, and to even to address mass social conflict (such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa ).

Some Important and Common Misconceptions about Restorative Justice

1. It makes victims unsafe and displaces their power/disrespects their needs.

Actually, in its truest form, restorative justice honors and respects the needs of the victim before anything else. This differs from the punitive system in that victims are in form and practice bystanders once the crime or conflict occurs. This is currently the #1 misconception in across-the-board conversations and awareness-building as well as the #1 resistance when bills are being drafted for possible law.

2. It is soft on offenders.

Police Officer Greg Ruprecht of Longmont, CO, puts it best: restorative justice has more “teeth” than punitive justice because it requires facing one’s harm and working with those affected to make it right--admitting to one’s wrongdoing, and at times face to face with the victim--is no small task compared to being hauled off, isolated and alone, for an expensive indeterminate jail or prison term.

3. It requires forgiveness.

Restorative justice is not a means to an end and recognizes that each situation and individual is unique and every crime and conflict is unique. In its truest form, restorative justice is not forcing anyone to do or feel anything, but rather creating the conditions for the possibility of healing and forgiveness while providing an honest platform for truth and for voicing the cause and affect of harm.

4. It requires everyone involved in the harm to want to do it in order for it to work.

Restorative justice processes can work even when some or many affected are not able and/or willing to participate. Stakeholders can include victim/s, offender/s, community representative/s, family, resource officers or law enforcement representatives, etc. There is also the possibility that “surrogate” processes will occur where people will stand in to represent those unable or unwilling to be present.

5. It is too expensive and time-intensive to implement.

While statistics are still being built in a way as to measure the cost-savings of general programs, it is clear that massive amounts of judicial processing time are being saved, and thus the costs related to that--not to mention the savings of incarceration ranging from 40K to over 100K per year depending on the case. In Colorado, a new law recently passed is self funding, using a $10 RJ surcharge per infraction (all cases excepting traffic violations) for the Restorative Justice Pilot Project. The fact is that restorative justice saves time and money even as it is difficult to put an exact dollar amount on just how much.

6. It is basically mediation.

Although it shares a similar purpose of providing conditions for understanding and resolution of harm, restorative justice is not mediation in that it strives to involve a wider circle where appropriate. When harm happens, mediation typically involves only those very directly involved. Restorative justice has the capacity to, at the appropriate stages, open up the process to include community and family representatives and officials from various systems involved in law enforcement and otherwise. Restorative justice understands that we all have an obligation when crime and harm occur--not just those immediately involved, and aims to create a predictable web of resources and a system that can be tapped into when and if harm does occur, while also working upstream of conflict to provide skills in areas such as NVC (nonviolent communication), authentic listening, and other related areas.

7. It is attempting to and assumes it can make things as they were as if no harm had ever occurred.

This is a very important point that came up today in class. Restorative justice does not assume or attempt that it can “restore” things to a place as if no harm had ever occurred. This would be a violation of the victim and does not validate the wrongness of the harm done, which is a core need for victims. What it is creating conditions for is a restoration of balance, when harm and crime throw off the balance of individuals, families, communities. It is attempting to support meeting the needs of those willing to participate and in no way assumes it can restore the past pre-harm.

Restorative Justice on the Rise

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