Promoting Restorative Justice

Allen Blake

Bethel College


    A search of two local public library systems revealed the following: one library of over a quarter million volumes had no books on the subject of restorative justice, while another library system serving 450,000 people had one book with three chapters devoted to restorative justice. A random telephone survey yielded two individuals, out of twenty five willing to participate (self-selection bias), who had heard of restorative justice and could explain something about it. When people ask me what I am studying in college they invariably have a follow up question – what is restorative justice?

    For those of us who are convinced of the value, appropriateness and potential healing power of restorative justice, one question remains. How can restorative justice be brought into the mainstream – become the rule rather than the exception? In this paper I would like to explore ways to promote restorative justice in the United States. In doing this, I hope to; 1) Identify how restorative justice has taken hold in the areas where it is now being practiced. 2) Speculate on avenues to introduce restorative justice to groups who may be involved in propagating it.

    Restorative justice views crime as a harm done to a person and to the community - the breakdown of a relationship more than the breaking of a or law (Schluter, 1994, p. 18). It focuses on ways for the person who did the harm to accept responsibility and try to make things right, instead of merely punishing them. One way this is done is by establishing a safe, face-to-face, dialog between the community, the crime victim and the offender. In this setting, the person who did the harm can experience the impact of their actions on others. Also, the people most directly affected by the crime have a say in what is done about it. Offenders who are engaged in this process with those they harmed, who take responsibility and try to repair the harm they did, are less likely to re-offend and more likely to become productive members of the community.

Restorative justice is being used successfully in a wide range of contexts, albeit the number of programs and participants is relatively limited. Restorative principles are being used by jurisdictions to address youth crime, by communities to respond to hate incidents and intolerance, by departments of correction as an alternative to traditional probation and supervision, by faith-based organizations as a ministry to their communities, by schools for behavior intervention, and by police departments to further community policing. Restorative practices are used in proactive community building as well as in incident based programs ranging from misbehavior in school to crimes of severe violence. What has been the seed from which restorative practices have grown in these examples?

Like any change, restorative justice initiatives are in part the result of the failure of the existing system. Dissatisfaction with the status quo has led to reevaluation and consideration of new approaches. This was the case in Minnesota, a state that has been a leader in restorative justice in the U.S.. Kay Pranis, who served as Restorative Justice Planner for the Minnesota Department of Corrections from 1994 to 2003, believes that the crisis in the American criminal justice system led to formulation of the alternative approach which was later initiated on a statewide level in Minnesota. In 1993 the Department of Corrections established a full time position to promote restorative justice and help other jurisdictions in adopting restorative practices (1993, pp. 493-494).

Dissatisfaction alone, though, will not bring about restorative practices. The people, groups or entities that are dissatisfied with the current system, whose interests are not being met, must learn how restorative justice can meet their needs. This calls for advocates of restorative justice to identify and communicate those benefits in the way that is most appropriate for the particular group. At the very real risk of falling prey to stereotypes, I believe it is helpful to make some generalizations about the interests of different groups, their problems in the present system, solutions offered through restorative justice and possible communications channels.

Victims are, of course, those most directly harmed by crime. While dissatisfaction over the last couple of decades has fueled reforms in victim's rights, the system is still offender focused. Once the investigation has been completed, the victim is superfluous. They have the right to be informed about some aspects of their case but they are, for the most part, mere spectators in an adversarial process which encourages offenders to deny any culpability. They may have an opportunity to tell the story of their victimization in court but at the same time may be subjected to cross examination by a hostile professional trained to discredit them. The process can take a toll on their emotional well being, further victimizing them and their families. For victims, restorative justice is a different paradigm. Though it may be triggered by a violation of the law, restorative justice is centered on the harm done to them. Rather than being adversarial it is consensus based and offenders who participate must admit their crime. So, instead of pushing against one other, the stakeholders – victim, offender and community – are pulling together toward repairing the harm done. Rather than being further wounded by the process, the victim has an opportunity to get answers and closure. They can confront the offender in a safe environment and communicate the impact of the crime on them and their family. In many restorative programs, the victim has a direct say in what the offender must do to make amends. The satisfaction and healing that victims can experience through restorative justice has the potential to meet their needs in a way that a guilty verdict and time served simply cannot. Perhaps surprisingly, this is proving to be true even in the most heinous crimes. Recent studies of victim offender dialog in crimes of severe violence reveal that when victims, or survivors of victims, chose to dialog with imprisoned offenders, 95% to 100% were “very satisfied” with the experience and 80% rated it as a life-changing event (Umbreit, Coats, Vos, & Brown, 2002, pp. 18-21).

The best way to communicate restorative principles to victims is before they become victims. However restorative justice uses crises as an opportunity for restoration so victims can also be introduced to restorative programs when they are most focused on the problem. Police and court officials commonly prepare and distribute packets to victims informing them of government and community resources. Brochures on available restorative programs can be included. Advocates for restorative justice can meet with or speak to victim's rights and victim support groups.

Next to crime victims and their families, offenders are the group most directly harmed by crime. It is popular to dismiss this harm by reasoning that offenders chose their actions and get what they deserve. However, the U.S. has enacted stacks of regulations and spent billions of dollars to provide safer automobiles and roads, reasoning that even though a person makes a mistake on the highway, they shouldn't have to pay for it with their life. We need to invest in building safeguards into our communities so the lives of offenders and their families are not destroyed by our system of justice, as they now are, in staggering numbers. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at year end 2002, 1 in 32 adults in the U.S. was in prison, in jail or on probation or parole – an increase of around 400% since 1980 (“Corrections Statistics”, 2003). Around three fourths of offenders released return to custody within three years (“Recidivism”, 2003). Whether we justify this in terms of rehabilitation or deterrence, the end result is the dehumanization of the individual (Colson, 2001, p. 65).

What does restorative justice have to offer to offenders that the present retributive system does not? It offers a chance for offenders to accept responsibility, to make amends for their wrong and gain self respect rather than to bear the loss of humanity and self respect in prison - a chance to experience the impact of their crime on victims and community - a chance to share their story with others rather than make excuses - a chance to be joined to the community, perhaps for the first time. Ongoing processes like peacemaking circles are especially helpful for offenders that are at risk to re offend. They offer accountability to a close knit group that has developed a relationship with the offender (Pranis, Stuart, & Wedge, 2003, pp. 9-29). Circles offer access to resources at the disposal of each of its members such as mentoring, childcare, parenting skills, job skills, employment opportunities, drug and alcohol treatment, transportation and housing. Circles show offenders that people who are not being paid to deal with them care about them and that alone can be a life altering experience (Pranis, et al., 2003, p. 204).

Lines of communication with offenders are limited. Defense attorneys and public defenders can be routinely contacted and informed about restorative justice and any available programs. Jail and prison visitation programs meet a need of the offender and can teach restoration. Few support groups exist for families of offenders but this could be incorporated into a restorative program. Reentry/reintegration support is one of the most needed areas for offenders. Restorative justice should focus on providing or brokering job training, counseling, substance abuse treatment, housing and community support through circles.

Public policy makers such as legislators, and other elected or appointed officials are a key group in promoting restorative justice. They make the rules that everyone else works under. Policy makers have to deal with the 41 billion dollar annual bill for corrections in the U. S. (Eisner, 2001). As an alternative to prison, restorative justice has the potential for great cost savings on two fronts. First, because restorative justice programs rely heavily on volunteers and because the offenders are in the community working to support themselves, the cost of a restorative program is a fraction of correctional supervision. Second, offenders who experience restorative justice are less likely to re offend. With present rates between 70% and 80% even a small decrease in recidivism will translate into millions of dollars. A modest estimate of seven percent decrease in recidivism for those who participate in restorative programs, based on recent North American studies, could result in savings of two billion dollars annually.1

Bureaucracy is unwieldy in the United States but ultimate policy makers are elected and not completely unresponsive. We need to remember that they are people too and respond to stories of restoration so we need to communicate the successes of restorative justice to public policy makers with good stories along with well thought out proposals to incorporate restorative principles into the system. They also need good data to justify their support of restorative justice. Candidates can be informed about restorative justice and invited to observe or participate in restorative programs. Restorative justice advocates can meet with or speak to party leaders, political groups, women's groups and community service organizations.

If policy makers are frustrated with the cost of providing justice then judges, prosecutors, police and other public officials may be even more frustrated - investing their lives to power a system that seems to have a revolving door. Many of these individuals have high ideals. For them, restorative justice offers to make a difference that retributive justice can't. Public officials are key to promoting restorative justice because they often serve as gatekeepers, deciding what programs will be used and who will be referred.

Communicating with these busy people is best done by offering restorative justice as a resource to them. Judges and prosecutors who handle juvenile crime are most likely to use restorative justice programs. Police are in a position to offer restorative alternatives to people who are having problems but who are not yet in the system, so if restorative programs are available for family support, these can be offered as a resource to which police may make referrals. Officials can be invited to observe or participate in restorative programs or training. Restorative justice must be shown to make a difference and be effective.

Minorities are another group that have reason to be dissatisfied with the present criminal justice system. Racial minorities, especially blacks are over represented in the system. Blacks account for 46% of the prison population as opposed to 13% of the total population (Mauer, 1999). According to a 1995 study by the Sentencing Project, one in three black males aged 20 to 29 was either in prison, in jail, or under supervision at any given time (Mauer, 1999). The social cost to minority communities is crushing. Restorative justice, on the other hand, can use crime as a stepping stone to community building, establishing relationships and shareing responsibility. The emphasis on keeping the offender safely in the community benefits family continuity and can increase community assets.

Communicating with minority groups is most effective through community leaders. Restorative justice will work best when the community owns the program. Leaders can be informed about restorative principles, introduced to examples of programs and invited to participate or observe. Restorative justice advocates can speak at local meetings and political organizations.

Dissatisfaction with failures in the existing system have not been the only avenue of success for restorative justice. It is also being practiced by faith communities as a way to act consistently with their faith and minister to others. Two Mennonites, Mark Yantzi, a probation officer and Dave Worth, a Voluntary Service coordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee, sparked the restorative justice movement in North America in 1974 when they suggested to the court in Elmira, Ontario that two young offenders meet and pay back their victims. This was the beginning of the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program (Zehr, 1990, pp. 158-159). Churches are key groups in promoting restorative justice for several reasons. First, they have a mandate for restoration. The Lord Jesus Christ instructed both victims and offenders to take the initiative to restore broken relationships (St. Matthew ch.5, ch.18). Second, churches are the source for committed volunteers that can make restorative justice happen. Third, churches have the opportunity to model restorative justice so that people can experience it for themselves. Most churches however do not teach or model restorative justice. Church discipline is now taboo in most congregations. This may be due, in part, to relaxed standards, but also it is because the value of restoration is not understood and appreciated.

Communicating with faith communities can be done by meeting with local or denominational leaders. Restorative advocates can demonstrate the Biblical basis for restoration and help churches train volunteers and organize their own restorative programs. Many churches have small groups or committees that are focused on local community needs. These groups are often interested in hearing about restorative justice. Church leaders can be invited to participate in restorative programs and training.

The criminal justice system is not the only place where restorative practices are being used successfully. Schools are using restorative principles as an alternative to the authoritarian, zero-tolerance relationships that have failed to provide an environment conducive to learning. SaferSanerSchools is one example. A program of the International Institute of Restorative Practices, it is involved in a pilot program in two public high schools and a middle school in Pennsylvania. The result of this ongoing program, begun in 1998, has been a marked improvement in the learning climate and a marked decrease in disciplinary referrals, detentions, suspensions and disruptive incidents. The program taught teachers to share and elicit emotions and to ask questions in order to convey a sense of community and mutual responsibility. The teachers learned to use circles and other powerful community building practices. Restorative principles have changed the culture in these schools among teachers, administrators and students (Mirsky, 2003).

Schools are key to promoting restorative justice because they can both teach and model restorative principles. They have the potential to establish norms for behavior that incorporate restorative rather than authoritarian or retributive relationships. Children have a strong sense of fairness and respond to restorative practices. Also, children are on the front end for social change. If they learn and experience restorative justice they have the potential to practice it throughout their lives, expect it from the system and pass it on to their children.

Schools offer lines of communication through teachers, administrators, parents and students. Individual college professors and department heads in colleges that train teachers can be informed about the benefits of restorative justice and restorative practices in the school setting. Information and training can be offered as a resource to local school administrators, school boards and teachers. Restorative justice advocates can speak to parent and student groups.

What about those who are not dissatisfied. Apathy is epidemic in the United States. We have little sense of community. The idea that we should be responsible for the well being of anyone else, especially someone not a member of our immediate household, is strange indeed. How can restorative justice be promoted among those who don't care – who see criminal justice issues as someone else's problem – who are O.K. with warehousing offenders at great expense only to have them re offend when they are released. As John Braithwaite has suggested, we can look to other opposition movements for examples of successful social change (Schiff, & Bazemore, 2001, p. 334). Child labor reform, abolition of slavery, women's rights, organized labor, civil rights, antiwar protest and the environment are all movements that have had major impact – changing our society. These issues were brought to the attention of an apathetic majority by caring involved individuals. These reformers relied heavily on a sense of fairness and morality - a plea to bring justice to those who were being wronged. They used both statistics and narratives as evidence of the unfair treatment of certain segments of society. They targeted the public and government officials with their message. Eventually, society and government could no longer tolerate these perceived injustices and laws were passed or policies changed.

Restorative justice can be communicated to the apathetic. Any method that places, in front of the public, the injustice of the present criminal justice system and the justice of restorative principles can be effective, from adding a signature promoting restorative justice at the bottom of an individual e-mail to organizing a public march. Letters to the editor, bumper stickers, public service announcements, press releases and television and radio spots can all be effective to raise public awareness. Some of these methods require fund raising which is itself a form of communication. Restorative justice is too important for people to have never heard of it.

How can restorative justice be brought into the mainstream? We must do restorative justice - in our homes, churches, schools, businesses, interpersonal relationships and as community volunteers. People who have experienced healing will hardly be satisfied with vengeance. We must document restorative justice. The public as well as public policy makers rely on both stories and statistics to make their decisions. We need good narratives to illustrate the failures of the retributive system and the benefits of restorative justice and we need good studies that shore up the stories with hard data. Perhaps most critically, we must disseminate restorative justice. As experts in the field have noted, “Good scientific and practical work does not necessarily reach the

public” (Bazemore, & Walgrave, 1999, p. 392). However, by following a plan of intentional communication appropriate to various key groups, we can promote restorative justice.


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1 The seven percent figure is based on meta-analysis of studies including programs such as restitution and community service which do not fully incorporate the principles of restorative justice. Restorative programs like conferencing or peacemaking circles that involve victims and face to face encounter would likely have a more pronounced effect on recidivism.