An Introduction to Restorative Justice

Restorative justice is rooted in a variety of traditions from around the world.  North-American traditions include Native-American as well as Mennonite practices.

Restorative Justice presents an alternative approach to justice from the criminal justice system, although the two approaches are not mutually exclusive.  The term Restorative Practices has become more commonplace as the principles of Restorative Justices have been applied in contexts outside of the criminal justice system, for example, schools.

It is difficult to provide a precise definition for restorative justice because the field continues to evolve.  However, one way to understand restorative justice is how it differs from modern Western criminal justice in three distinct ways, as illustrated in the quote from Howard Zehr:

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.[1]

1)      Restorative justice expands the circle of stakeholders.

Criminal Justice sees justice as a matter between the state and the offender.  Restorative justice expands the stakeholders to those impacted by the offense, including victims and the community.

2)      Restorative justice prioritizes shalom by emphasizing the needs of all the stakeholders rather than merely focusing on what the offender deserves.

The needs of victims typically include access to information, the hearing and telling of truth, the opportunity to be heard, the chance to reframe and reconstruct the narrative in way that brings healing, and the chance to receive some form of restitution, even if only symbolically.

Offenders typically need accountability, not just in terms of punishment, but rather as an opportunity to take ownership for their actions, to understand and acknowledge the impact of their actions and to seek to make things right.  Additionally they often need encouragement to experience personal transformation, seek re-integration with the community, and to understand the root causes of their actions, which often includes their own trauma.

Crimes impact communities.  This includes the family and friends of the victim and the offender, but can include a host of others who may not be as easily identified.  An act of vandalism for instance erodes the sense of safety and civic pride. Community members may have needs as secondary victim, and the community’s relational web is often frayed and in need of repair. Additionally the inclusion of community members can draw attention to the systemic nature of the crime.

3) Restorative justice is a collective, participatory process.

Rather than vesting authority in a state appointed arbiter, restorative justice promotes the active engagement of the parties with one another to find ways of moving forward.  One common process is a “circle” in which a facilitator helps guide the group through the discussion.

These three traits of restorative justice provide opportunities for the confession of sin, repentance, forgiveness, grace, reconciliation, healing, spiritual growth, and the pursuit of shalom within a framework of justice.

If you have further interest in restorative justice, “The Little Book of Restorative Justice” by Howard Zehr provides a great introduction.

[1][1] The Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zehr, page 37

by Andrew Larrett-Smith

Posted by Debbie Wright