Restorative Justice Invites a Fundamental Shift in the Way We Think About Justice
In the last few decades, different programs have arisen out of a profound, virtually universal frustration with the dysfunction of our justice system. What distinguishes restorative justice from all these programs is that it is not a program.It is a theory of justice which challenges the fundamental assumptions in the dominant discourse about justice.
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.
Our criminal justice system asks these three questions:
1. What law was broken?
2. Who broke it?
3. What punishment is warranted?
Restorative justice asks an entirely different set of questions:
1. Who was harmed?
2. What are the needs and responsibilities of all affected?
3. How do all affected parties together address needs and repair harm?
An emerging approach to justice rooted in indigenous cultures, restorative justice is reparative, inclusive, and balanced. It emphasizes:
1. Repairing harm
2. Inviting all affected to dialogue together to figure out how to do so
3. Giving equal attention to community safety, victim’s needs, and offender accountability and growth
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 ).
For more information about restorative justice, see www.restorativejustice.org
Though contemporary restorative justice began only about thirty years ago, the effectiveness of these practices in reducing violence, incarceration, recidivism, and suspensions and expulsions in schools is increasingly being documented. It is recognized as a model in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s Model Programs Guide.
A meta-analysis of all restorative justice research written in English, Restorative Justice: The Evidence, concluded in at least two trials, that when used as a diversion, restorative justice reduced violent re-offending, victim’s desire for revenge, and costs. A 2007 University of Wisconsin study found that Barron County’s restorative justice program led to significant declines in youth violence, arrests, crime, and recidivism. Five years after the program began, violent juvenile offenses decreased almost 49%. Overall juvenile arrest rates decreased almost 45%.
New Zealand ’s juvenile justice system adopted a nation-wide, family-focused restorative approach in 1989, and today, juvenile incarceration is virtually obsolete for crimes other than homicides. 70% of youth participants have no further contacts with the justice system. Youth detention facilities are being shut down. Closer to home, a Sonoma County diversion program touts a 10% rate of re-offending, 90% plan completion rates, and over 90% victim satisfaction with the process. An in-custody adult restorative justice program in San Bruno County showed a decrease in violent re-offending by 82.6% after 16 weeks of participation.
RJOY’s own program in West Oakland’s Cole Middle School eliminated violence and expulsions and reduced the rate of suspensions by more than 75%. In 2009, the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) published Findings from Schools Implementing Restorative Practices  which highlighted outcomes from six schools located in communities in Pennsylvania that range from urban to rural and impoverished to middle class. As at Cole Middle School , all six schools in this study witnessed significant drops in suspensions, expulsions, disruptive behavior, reoffending, violence and discipline referrals generally. A 9 minute video about the dramatic impact of restorative practices at one of the schools in the study may be found at http://www.iirp.org/westphilahigh/
1 See www.dsgonline.com/mpg2.5/restorative.htm
2 See www.smith-institute.org.uk/pdfs/RJ_full_report.pdf)
3 See www.bcrjp.org/Articles/justice_program_linked_with_drop.htm
4 See www.cyf.govt.nz/documents/mike_doolan_presentation.pdf
5 The Dept. of Child, Youth and Family Services maintains about 75 beds today for Youth Justice, compared to the more than 1000 beds available in the 1980’s. http://www.judgesandmagistrates.org/bec.htm
8 http://www.realjustice.org/pdf/IIRP-Improving-School-Climate.pdf, retrieved May 14, 2010