by John Ungerleider
Overview of Restorative Justice
Restorative Justice (RJ) is an alternative approach to punishment in criminal justice. RJ emphasizes restitution to heal harm done to a victim, and accountability by the harm doer. RJ recognizes individual needs and feelings within a context of community interconnectedness as it seeks to repair harm caused by conflict and aggression, including to heal wounded relationships. In RJ, we seek a tangible expression of justice and community safety.
RJ is a relatively new field: we are well served to engage it with the fresh examination of a “beginner’s mind.” The term restorative may feel odd, for what is being restored for those who never had justice? This notion of restoration requires fundamental human dignity to be honored and the impact of harmful action to be addressed: what needs to happen to move forward from harm and conflict towards healing? RJ processes tap into human capacities for building safe, healthy communities through respectful, heartfelt communication.
RJ practices in criminal justice include:
- Community of Support and Accountability (COSA): meetings with trained community volunteers to assist those leaving incarceration;
- Reparative Panels: meetings after or before (Pre-Charge) someone is charged with a crime to choose a restorative process rather than going to court or paying a fine;
- Victim-Offender Mediation sessions and Victim Support services.
Restorative practices are increasingly used in schools instead of traditional punitive discipline, notably in California, New Zealand, Canada, and Vermont. Key restorative practices include the use of Restorative Language, based on a Restorative Mindset, most formally within the structure of a Circle Process.
Restorative Mindset and Language
How restorative am I?
- Do I remain calm during difficult conversations?
- Do I really listen, without interrupting?
- Do I take responsibility for any role I might have played when things went wrong, acknowledge it, and apologize?
A restorative mindset invites curiosity to understand my role in a community, to be equally open to multiple voices rather than render judgment on another’s opinions. Values in a restorative mindset emphasize relationships and trust. Members of a community are responsible for each other, to heal and restore community relations. Harm-doers are held accountable for their actions and take a role in repairing harm. Conflict is addressed through dialogue and collaborative problem-solving that addresses feelings, needs, and causes.
Do I use restorative language?
- Am I judgmental and demanding? Or is my language building safety and trust for diversity of thought to be expressed?
- Do I feel someone deserves to be punished? Or do I remember kindness as a practice and value?
- Am I empathic? Do I listen to understand?
- Do I take responsibility for my views by using I-statements?
- Rather than blaming, do I ask restorative questions?
- What happened?
- What were you thinking and feeling at the time?
- Who do you think has been affected? How have they been affected?
- What do you think you need to do to make things right?
Using restorative language should feel empathic and vulnerable — less confrontational than a lawyer fighting for only one side. While the legal tradition is based on the power of argument in order to win a victory for my side, restorative justice builds on understanding multi-partisan views. We are sincerely trying to see the other side and understand another’s needs, while holding each other accountable for harm caused and trying to make amends.
We see how often self-righteousness and anger rise to the top as the surest way to get our voice heard. Restorative practices invite us to practice justice and reconciliation through speaking from the heart, and from listening with empathy to all voices in the room.
The circle process is structured, ritualistic, and personal. Participants focus on mutual sharing. They may even pass a “talking piece,” a practice appropriated from Native American tradition. Participants agree to ground rules for sharing. Agreements may include “speaking and listening from the heart.” Everyone seems to understand that. You may notice an intimacy and vulnerability, an open, honest communication that is made easier in this structured setting.
While inter-group conflict dialogue or interpersonal mediation sessions require a skilled facilitator, a restorative circle with clear rules and procedures can often run itself, even with children.
The circle framework and process allow participants to be and share who they are — to welcome diversity and to bond across differences; to feel a sense of belonging and shared accomplishment. How different from the tone of discourse in Congressional or campaign debates!
The atmosphere of a well-functioning circle includes respect and trust; a deep mutual listening that emerges. Circles can be enjoyable, and circles can be painful at times: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry…!
These are the simplified stages of a Circle Process:
- Opening – To focus and center the group, open a circle with a quote, poem, song, or deep breathing.
- Agreements – Establish buy-in for simple ground rules for speaking and listening for understanding, and using a talking piece so one person speaks at a time.
- Check-In Question – Open with a question that establishes grounding and presence, inspires laughter or connection, and allows for honest sharing of one’s current state.
- Discussion Rounds – What needs to be addressed in the circle? What questions will you ask, in how many rounds? What was shared that resonated with those present?
- Check-Out & Closing – How are people feeling? How did we do? What did I learn? End with a positive acknowledgement as closure: maybe a poem, song, or game.
Restorative Justice is gaining traction in the criminal justice system and schools as an alternative to punitive approaches, perhaps due to a simplicity in meeting people’s real needs. Consequently, RJ is attracting young practitioners with the ambition to achieve real, transformative, social justice instead.