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A Dream of Restoration and Transformation
I have a dream that we won’t have to talk about ‘restorative justice’ because it will be understood that true justice is about restoration, and about transformation. I have
a dream. – Dr. Howard Zehr
Once a crime has occurred the question then becomes: How do we address the crime in a “just” manner? Restorative justice offers an alternative framework for addressing crime.
Historically, America’s criminal justice system has followed a retributive and utilitarian model that sanctions criminal behavior through penal measures. The restorative justice approach is distinguishable since it draws upon principles of community building, reconciliation, healing, and peacemaking. Restorative justice seeks to address the question of how to “make things right” by identifying the harm suffered by the victim, holding the offender accountable for this harm, and restoring interpersonal relationships within the community. It offers all stakeholders (victim, offender, families, and members of the community) an opportunity to repair the harm suffered as a result of the criminal offense and create a social contract to build a harmonious community.
The Characteristics of the Restorative Justice Model
The principles of restorative justice differ from the punitive nature of the United States criminal justice system. Traditionally, the key participants in a criminal matter are the judge, jury, plaintiff, and defendant. The plaintiff is the State; hence crime is characterized as a threat to public safety and disruption to social order. During the court proceedings, the goal of the State is to establish the elements of the crime, such as: the act, intent, and result. The defendant then presents defenses against the crime. The role of the jury is to determine if the elements of the crime are established to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Throughout this process, the victim plays a limited role and the voice of the community is not present. In most cases, the offender is encouraged to remain silent and avoid making admissions or giving an apology.
Restorative justice takes a different approach by focusing on making the victim, offender, and community whole again. Restorative justice draws upon the traditional notions of community building and peacemaking. These foundational tenets can be found in the practices of indigenous cultures across the world. This includes the sub-Saharan African ideology of Ubuntu that recognizes a person is a person through others; thus crime is a threat to the well-being of the entire community.1 Also, Native American faith traditions of “living in balance with self, community, and the creator” are incorporated into restorative justice practices.2 By drawing upon these cultural and faith traditions, restorative justice provides an opportunity for the victim to describe the harm suffered, the offender to take responsibility for the harm, and the community to offer support during this process.
In the restorative justice model, the focus moves beyond retribution to reconciliation. Restorative justice is a victim-centered approach; therefore crime is identified as harm to the victim and the community. Restorative justice offers an opportunity for the victim to find healing and answer questions that are often left unanswered, such as: Why did the offender commit the crime? How can the offender be held accountable to make things right? How can the victim and community overcome the fear of re-victimization? Through this line of questioning, the victim is given a chance to share his or her story of the harm suffered as a result of the crime and its impact. This storytelling can empower the victim and begin the healing process.
While participating in the restorative justice process, the offender will gain a deeper
understanding of the gravity of the offense. Throughout the process, the offender is held
accountable to both the victim and the community. The offender can discover ways to earn redemption and create a path of re-entry into the community. For example, this
can be accomplished by offering an apology, performing community service, and/or
providing restitution. The community also plays an integral role by supporting the
personal development of the offenders and aiding the offenders in the process of
understanding their obligations. Community members can offer referrals to social services and resources; hence drawing the offender into the social fabric of the community and reducing the likelihood of recidivism.
Benefits of Restorative Justice
Restorative justice offers benefits that may not be derived through the traditional criminal
justice system, such as healing for all participants and collective accountability. The
greatest benefit is the ability to create a sense of community since “awareness of connections is the foundation of authentic community.”3 A local restorative justice agency, Restorative Justice Community Action, Inc. (RJCA),4 has aided offenders/referred participants and community members in addressing crime in a
restorative way. The mission of RJCA is to improve community livability through
restorative justice practices. RJCA’s 2002-2005 data highlights include:5
•18,881 offenders participated in a community conference.
•86% of offenders successfully completed their restorative justice plan.
•75% of offenders did not re-offend within three years of committing an offense.
•96% of participating community members and offenders were satisfied.
Overall, the RJCA’s accomplishments illustrate that restorative justice can provide an
opportunity for mending the harm to relationships in the context of community
building. Each stakeholder is actively involved in restoring peace and obtaining justice.
Examples of Restorative Justice Models
The restorative justice model has been used in various ways to restore communities, build
relationships, and prevent future crime. As an advocate for restorative justice, I have
participated and served in a variety of capacities in various restorative justice models.
Through the following experiences, I have witnessed the benefits of addressing issues in a more holistic and restorative manner:
Create National Unity. I recently served as a volunteer for the Diaspora Project of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia (TRC).6 The restorative justice model
correlates with the principles of transitional justice for many nations as they seek to
transform their turbulent past into a peaceful future. I witnessed firsthand the power of the TRC in aiding citizens as they reconcile, forgive, and speak the truth.7 Through the
sharing of these personal accounts, nations, like Liberia, South Africa, and Sierra Leone, have learned from the past and united to repair the harm suffered.
Honor Cultural Heritage. I participated in a Hmong Community Peacekeeping Circle.
This circle incorporated Hmong cultural traditions when responding to crime through
the integration of the wisdom of Hmong elders into the legal process. The involvement of the elders provides a link to the Hmong cultural heritage for future generations.
Remedy Conflict in Schools. While studying in Greenwich, England, I trained grade school students in relational perspectives of conflict management and stimulated their leadership development. I prepared students to play an active role as stakeholders in resolving conflicts in the school.
Promote Community Policing.As a community advocate, I have researched models of
community policing that use a holistic, integrated approach to policing. In a growing
number of municipalities, restorative justice has also become an integral part of police officer training. The City of Woodbury is one such example in which officers work alongside community members to create safe communities and prevent crime. Through this collaboration, relations between community and police have improved, communities have become unified, and mutual respect has been established.
In Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, King suggest that we cannot be
satisfied “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The underlying goal of restorative justice is realizing justice for all stakeholders.
Restorative justice offers an opportunity for the victim, offender, and community to work
together collaboratively to address criminal behavior and create durable solutions. The
ultimate goal is to restore the sense of community that is diminished by crime and
violence. My hope is that the dreams of both Dr. King and Dr. Zehr will be reached as we
explore ways in which restorative justice can be used to restore and transform our communities.
1 Department of Welfare, Private Bag X901, Republic South Africa, 1997, http:www.welfare.gov.za/
Documents/1997/wp.htm (last visited June 19, 2008).
2 See http://www.acfnewsource.org/religion/circle_sentencing.html.
3 Kay Pranis, Restoring Community: The Process of Circle Sentencing (1996), presented at “Justice
Without Violence: Views from Peacemaking and Restorative Justice” (June 6, 1997).
4 Restorative Justice Community Action Incorporated, http://www.rjca-inc.org/.
5 Downtown Journal, Restorative Justice, Restoring Communities, http://www.downtownjournal.com/index.php?action=searchArchive&archivePage=100&dateFrom=&date
6 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, https://www.trcofliberia.org/.
Artika Tyner is a Clinical Law Fellow in the Community Justice Project at the
University of Saint Thomas School of Law Interprofessional Center. Ms. Tyner teaches and supervises CJP students as they prepare to become agents of social change. CJP students use an integrated problem solving approach to restore and build communities. She can be reached at email@example.com or (651) 962-4960.