Restorative Justice: A Cursory Glance
Admittedly, I still don’t feel I have a firm understanding of what restorative justice really is. Sure, I read the “Little Book,” I sat through the lecture. I was even supposed to sit in on a restorative justice circle—which was cancelled due to inclement weather. Needless to say, I’ve gleaned little more than what I would say is a cursory glance at what is undoubtedly a rich, in-depth, and nuanced subject. In short, I feel I know enough about restorative justice to know that I don’t know much. Likewise, thanks to a class I’m presently taking on law and human rights, I could say the same for the legal system that restorative justice is, in at least some capacity, a response to. I therefore feel pretty ill-equipped to be writing about the subject in any depth. I will, however, explore what I do understand of restorative justice.
Restorative justice is a means to address the complex issue of justice through a more holistic approach than that of the retributive justice system. It integrates both the personal and the interpersonal elements of crime that are often overlooked in the adversarial process or the legal system. Crime is not perceived as an isolated event solely between victim and offender; rather, it is something which has arisen out of the greater community—whether the immediate or the broader community of life—and thus it impacts the greater community. Howard Zehr, who is often hailed as the grandfather of restorative justice writes,
Crime has a social dimension, as well as a more local and personal dimension. The legal system focuses on the public dimension; that is, on society’s interests and obligations as represented by the state. However, this emphasis downplays or ignores the personal and interpersonal aspects of crime… Restorative justice expands the circle of stakeholders… beyond just the government and the offender to include victims and community members also. (The Little Book... 12-3)
Thus, restorative justice centers on addressing needs, those of the victim, the community, and the offender. Crime is viewed as a violation of people and interpersonal relationships. This violation, in turn, creates an obligation—to right the wrong (Zehr 19). The emphasis, then, is not on punishment, as it is in the traditional legal system, but on healing, and healing happens when needs are addressed.
What is perhaps most appealing to me about what restorative justice offers is to be found in one of the central operating principles it rests upon—an understanding that all life is interconnected. In the restorative justice view, all life exists in a vast web of interpenetrating relationships. Crime, then, represents a wound in the community, a tear in the web of relationships (Zehr 20). When the web is disrupted, we are all affected. This, of course, has profound implications for how people are treated within the restorative justice process. Just imagine if we were to treat offenders and victims not as separate beings removed from our lives, but as extensions of ourselves.
In my own experience, I have noticed that this ability to step well beyond the comfortable confines of one’s own interests, belief structures, and worldviews is imperative to the cultivation of humanity’s most noble traits—compassion, empathy, understanding and love. Let’s be clear here, however, this is not the glossed over, candy-coated homogeny touted ad nauseam by new age spiritualists of “we’re all one!” Though this may very well be true, this statement is too often used as a means to disregard distinctions and differences, and so does a great disservice to the rich array and vast wealth of diversity inherent in the human experience. Rather, the interconnectedness referred to in the restorative justice model is more matured and developed; it recognizes the diversity within unity. In this way, precious attention and respect is given to the unique context and background of each individual. Each situation is a new situation.
This point in particular highlights what I would say is the retributive justice system’s greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness. The legal system relies heavily upon precedent, meaning that in the process of deciding how a case should be ruled the first place the courts look to is how cases of a similar ilk (or even just loosely related) have been decided in the past. Holding to precedent is as near to sacrosanct in the legal system as the law itself. The reasoning behind this is that precedent provides some sense of predictability and continuity to the legal system—everyone has some sense of what to expect and the courts are not charged with the task of reinventing the wheel, as it were, for each case. The major problem with this approach, however, is that it then makes it very difficult to approach each case as a completely new case, involving different people, in a new set of circumstances, which of course it inevitably will be no matter how alike it may be to other cases. As a result, the uniquely human qualities of the case are often marginalized.
Though restorative justice may serve as a means to more fully address the human element, which is left wanting in the retributive justice system, this does not mean that restorative justice is a replacement. Indeed, even Howard Zehr concedes that “Some cases are simply too horrendous to be worked out by those with a direct stake in the offense” (The Little Book… 80). Additionally, he points out that “We must not lose those qualities which the legal system at its best represents: the rule of the law, due process, a deep regard for human rights, [and] the orderly development of law” (80). It seems then, that both systems and approaches possess respective merits. Where the legal system falls short in the arena of holistic considerations to both community and individual, restorative justice excels. Whereas, retributive justice is well suited to address situations involving particularly heinous crimes—situations in which restorative justice falters. It seems to me then that a meeting and merging of the two approaches could have profound benefits for both systems as well as for the greater pursuit of justice.
Though my understanding of restorative justice still feels rudimentary at best, this little taste has surely whetted my palette. Though I feel much more research and understanding is needed on my part, I feel strongly that restorative justice presents an appealing set of principles and values that I think could deeply enrich and strengthen the legal process. This is the direction I very much hope to see humanity move in, the radicle collision of old and new, the infusion of fresh evolving perspective and understanding into systems that have become decrepit, stale, or simply outdated and broken. May we have the wisdom to acknowledge the good and beauty in what we have created and the critical discernment to cut away what only impedes our deepening connection to each other and the expanding sense of our shared humanity.
Zehr, Howard. The Little Book of Resorative Justice. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2002. Print.