What is Restorative Justice?

Understanding the Misunderstanding

Some years ago I worked in Juvenile Corrections where I coordinated a number of Restorative Justice programs.  One time the Judge sent to us a young man who had vandalized a home in the community.  When the youth understood what he was getting into, he begged me to give him 100 hours of Community Service rather than having to meet with the family he had victimized.  The Judge and I said no, he would meet with the family.   I agreed with him that it would be one of the most difficult things he had ever done, but I also promised him that once he did, he would regain his self-respect and be able to “hold his head up” again.

Eventually he did meet with the family. He listened to them express what they had gone through as a result of his senseless actions.  They listened to him struggle through identifying, understanding and changing some of his beliefs and attitudes.  Together they worked out a plan for him to repair some of the damages.  Many months later the man whose home had been vandalized told me that he often ran into the youth around town and that they were able to talk to each other.  Dignity had been restored for both victim and offender.  The ability to trust had been restored and an unhappy adolescent learned the meaning of honor and repairing harm.  This is how Restorative Justice works.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misunderstanding regarding the concept of Restorative Justice.  I once contacted a police officer who was the victim of a garage break-in at his home during which some tools and other miscellaneous items had been stolen.  The offender had been ordered by Juvenile Court to attend a Restorative Justice program at the agency where I worked.  He had met with us a number of times and was making good progress in taking personal responsibility for his actions.   He desired to make things as right as he could with the officer and his family.  I was now inviting the family to participate in the process to whatever degree they were willing, providing them an opportunity to express how they had been affected and to participate in the decision process of what the young offender might do to repair the harm that he had caused.

The officer had no interest in sitting down with me or with the offender.  He was furious.  “I think your mollycoddling of these kids is ridiculous!  This Restorative Justice stuff is crap!  What he needs are some tough consequences.  He needs to understand that he could have got himself shot that night if I’d woken up! “

That Restorative Justice is “soft” is a common misunderstanding.  People often have the  impression that when those who have caused harm are provided with support that they are not also being held accountable.

 Two World Views: Punitive vs Restorative

In the punitive world-view in which our culture is steeped, we require answers to these three questions when harm has been done to someone or to the greater community:

  1. What rule, law or societal norm was violated or broken?
  2. Who did it?
  3. What are the consequences?  (i.e. how should the offender be punished?)

Punishment is about extracting retribution.  What does he or she owe for indulging in this behavior—both materially and simply for having “done wrong”?  We expect the offender to passively comply with what others decide his/her consequence, or punishment should be.

The restorative world-view asks different questions:

  1. What harm was caused because of this event, and to whom?
  2. Who caused the harm and who is responsible to repair it?
  3. What needs to happen in order to repair the harm and restore all those who were harmed?

 Identifying the Harm

In the case involving the police officer and his family the primary harm they experienced was the violation of their privacy.  They no longer felt safe.  This vulnerability resulted in lost sleep and increased household stress affecting family relationships, health and work.  Stolen items needed to be replaced and money was spent on an upgraded lock and alarm system.

The young offender had caused harm to his family by violating trust and causing shame and embarrassment.  He harmed his peers by perpetuating an attitude among many adults that adolescents are to be feared and mistrusted.  He may have contributed to negative cultural stereotypes. The general community was harmed, especially the neighborhood where the crime occurred as we all feel the effect of increased fear, anger and tension surrounding crime in our communities.

The young man caused harm to himself by getting mixed up in crime and the criminal justice system.  Having this offense on his record will have it’s own ramifications—juvenile files are not as closed as we might like to think.  He felt shame and an increased sense of failure and lack of worth.

Many, like the victimized officer, feel whatever the youth suffered is as it should be—he deserved it.  But what good would that serve?  Would it inspire the youth to do an emotional, behavioral 180 and become a model adolescent citizen?  Would it sweep away the anger and stress and hurt the victimized family felt?  Would it make our community safer?

Repairing the Harm

What victims tell us they want most is to have their feelings heard and understood, especially, when possible, by the one who hurt them.  They want people, particularly the perpetrator, to understand their pain.  This is where the desire for revenge comes from—“I want you to feel the pain I feel, the pain you caused me!”  Most of us can relate to this even if we have not been a victim of crime.

Most victims also want what restoration means: to return to a state of emotional/psychological strength and well-being; to have order and a sense of safety restored; to have their things returned and restitution made for anything lost or damaged.

The police officer’s family deserves the opportunity to talk honestly, in an emotionally safe space, about how the event has affected them, including telling the young man that he might have gotten himself shot had the officer been awake!  The young man needs to hear this—and the officer needs to be able to tell him.  The family needs to be able to state what will help them feel safe again and able to release their fear, stress and anger.  They should  be able to ask the offender the questions that most often victims have: “Why?  Why me?  Do you realize what this has done to us?”  It is right that they receive payment for the things they have lost, or have their things returned undamaged.

The youth needs to be supported in holding himself accountable, without blaming others, for the harm he has caused.  This includes hearing how his actions have actually affected others.  This includes confronting the beliefs he holds that allowed him to behave as he did.  It includes exploring the honorable values he holds and the changes he can make to bring his life and his actions into alignment with those values.  He needs to be validated for his intrinsic worth and recognized for the responsible choices he makes.

Does this sound like mollycoddling?  The young man who once begged for 100 hours of community service in lieu of meeting with the family he had harmed would tell you Restorative Justice is most certainly not “soft”.  Restorative Justice does not negate the fact that sometimes people need to go to jail in order to protect the public.  But it does not view this as the ultimate solution.  Going to jail does not repair the harm that has been done.  The victims still need and deserve support.  The offender still needs to take responsibility for the harm he has caused and do what he can to make it right, even if he needs to do that from behind bars.  He may also require support in order to make the necessary changes in his thinking and behavior so that he can live responsibly and successfully.

A victimized person or family gets their questions answered and are sometimes able to talk with the one who harmed them and frightened them so badly.  An offender is able to make real restitution and receive new insights and the opportunity and support to effect real change and growth.  A community, consciously or unconsciously, breathes a little easier and feels a little lighter.  This is what can occur when people are willing to sit down together, listen to one another, make decisions together and be accountable to one another.

This is Restorative Justice.