Friday, January 22, 2010

What is Restorative Justice?

When two people use the term "Justice," each person may be referring to a different concept.   There are many concepts of what Justice is.  This blog post will contrast two of them, Retributive Justice and Restorative Justice

In a nutshell, the form of "Justice" that most people think of, when they think of our "Justice System" is Retributive Justice.  RETRIBUTION.  Penal System. Penance.  Paying the Price.  Fines.  Retributive justice is the parking meter ticket.  The time spent in prison.  Punishment.  An eye for an eye.  
Restorative Justice is different. 

Rather than asking, how do we make the offender feel pain (so he won't do it again), Restorative Justice asks the question, how can things be made right?  How can things be RESTORED? 

  • The crime was committed against the victim, so how can the victim be restored to wholeness? 
  • What does the Criminal need to do to facilitate the process of healing for the Victim? 
  • What does it take for the Criminal to be RESTORED back into the community?  

Restorative Justice is not about making it "easy" for or "coddling" criminals.  To the contrary, the emphasis is on both repair and on responsibility.  The Criminal is asked to acknowledge and to take full responsibility for the evil he has perpetrated. 

The model of Restorative Justice is one of restitution, of apology, of repainting the vandalized wall.  In a video link HERE, Dominic Barter explains that, in his view, the bottom line for restorative justice is about restoring connection -- connection within people, between people, and as communities.


This blog post contains two videos.  In the first video, Dominic Barter (an advocate for Restorative Justice), discusses the reason we must understand Justice as a system which can be modified and changed as society changes, to suit our needs.   In the second video, a former inmate discusses how Restorative Justice was applied in his case to transform his life.  

To understand that Justice as a system which exists to serve the needs of society is a necessary first step.  Our cultural assumptions -- the things we take for granted about the "way things are" -- is a lens which colors the way we see our world.  If we are not aware of the lens, we may not even be aware that it exists or that there may be other, viable ways of doing things.

Our assumptions about the worth of the existing system, of Retributive Justice, are a bit like that lens.  We may take certain propositions for granted without ever questioning why.  In order to move toward a system of Restorative Justice, we must first understand that certain structures in society are not necessary to justice per se, but rather that some of those systems are linked specifically to our notion of Retributive Justice.  As Barter illustrates in his school principal example, the discarding of older, dysfunctional systems requires systemic change in mentality from the top down, in every layer of society.  Adoption of Restorative Justice is something that must be done within a proper theoretical framework, intentionally, and with proper support. 

The second video is a powerful illustration of how Restorative Justice can work.  Notice that this individual, a criminal, progressed from not really having an awareness of his effect on his victim to one of awareness and concern.  Only after he was awakened to the personhood of his victim, could he comprehend the gravity of what he had done and feel remorse.  The victim also, over time, became aware of the criminal as a person.  Barriers to communication and relationship fell.  This illustrates the restoration of connection -- connection within people, between people, and as communities -- that is at the heart of restorative justice.     

Victims in restorative justice programs report higher rates of satisfaction with the justice system, and offenders have lower rates of recidivism.  This new direction in criminal justice is one that every community should consider incorporating, especially for nonviolent offenders. 

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