Restorative Justice


I am increasingly excited about the restorative justice movement in our country, not just in our prisons but in our every day lives. Many of you already know about restorative justice and perhaps already use it in your family or work life. In its simplest terms a restorative justice response to a crime or wrong doing asks not what rule or law was broken (as in "zero tolerance" in school jargon), but what harm has been done.

Last evening I attended a send-off of a new broad-based collaborative effort to promote a growing use of restorative justice practices particularly in the criminal justice and educational world. What is most exciting for me, having advocated for restorative justice now for nearly thirty years, is that the movement is being led by young people. Restorative justice is part of the revolution we have been waiting for, and it's happening, not only here, but at many levels of society from the So. African Truth and Reconciliation effort to reorienting whole juvenile justice systems in New Zealand so that every child accused of a crime goes through a restorative practice model.

In the criminal justice field, rather than simply be constrained to asking what law has been broken and what punishment needs to be meted out, whenever a crime is committed we can ask what harm is done and how can we repair the harm? How can we breach the broken trust not only between the offender and the victim but the trust in the whole community? What a contrast with the dominant use of punishment in response to a crime or wrongdoing that primarily emphasizes the role of the offender!

One of my primary concerns about the field of criminal justice has been the successful effort to misframe our prison system as a "Department of Corrections" when it actually is a "Department of Punishment." The fancy word for punishment is retribution, the "punishment inflicted on someone as vengeance for a wrong or criminal act."  

Even though spanking a child is far less prevalent now (at least not in schools), we still hear someone (usually a male) say, "My dad and sometimes my mom gave us a good licking when we did something wrong. And that's how we learned what was right or wrong." Maybe that helped emphasize the bad behavior, but more often it emphasized the power-over ethic of the parent and ultimately some external powerful force of rules and associated punishment. The better idea is to teach and learn to monitor and censor one's behavior from within, developing an intrinsic sense of right and wrong, call it conscience or kindness or making a covenant as the doctors do, to "do no harm." Offering a simple illustration: Instead of yelling or physically grabbing a child caught drinking milk out of the container at the refrigerator, what if dad sits down with the child and explains: "Your drinking milk from the container is actually quite harmful to the health of the family, and if everyone in the family did this.....And now do you understand?" Preachy, perhaps. And of course this doesn't always work, but neither does punishment.

The thing is this: punishment really doesn't work. You may disagree - or at least need to think about it for time. Time out in the corner works, but whipping a child doesn't. Isolating someone who is a danger to society is good practice if administered with humaneness, but "caging them up and poking a stick at them" for years and years and then following through with further deprivations like making an ex-felon (and their family, if they still have one) ineligible for public housing, for example, and taking away their right to vote and making it extremely difficult to reintegrate into society when a job application has a "box" for you to check if you are a felon. And these are actual sanctions.

Yes, we need laws and rules that govern and control anti-social behaviors with appropriate means of holding people accountable when they hurt others. But we need to find creative ways of enforcing these laws in the U.S. along the lines followed in Europe and elsewhere.

We as a society are realizing that imprisoning people as punishment is terribly expensive and ineffective because most prisoners are not really "corrected;" the general rate for someone to return to prison is often in the 70 percent range. "You commit the crime, you do the time." Unfortunately a similar attitude is actually a fairly accurate description of a core of influential legislators who prefer prisoners are non-voting, invisible, problem people who need to be kept in prison as long as possible.

I am encouraged and hopeful that we are working our way out of our retributive prison system and other systemic ways we punish people. Restorative work is a promising, useful and humane alternative for us to practice in our daily lives as well: We can always ask what harm is done when a hurtful act is committed? Name it. Work toward healing its impact on the victim, the offender and the whole community with as little vengeance as possible. Amazingly research has shown that victim satisfaction to this approach is quite high and the likelihood of recommitment is lowered.

Restorative, healing, reconciling work is central to all religious practices and to any healthy society. I am encouraged we are learning new skills, new paradigms, to better carry out this work.