From June 28-30, 2018, I had the opportunity to attend the International Restorative Justice Conference in Burlington, Vermont. The conference was entitled “Global Unity and Healing: Building Communities with a Restorative Approach.” It was sponsored by the Center for Justice and Reform at the Vermont Law School.
All over the world, individuals and organizations are engaged in a trauma informed conflict prevention and response method called restorative justice. As a human practice of conflict transformation and peacemaking, restorative justice dates back at least 60,000 years. Many of the practices and frameworks that modern restorative theories are based on have been shaped by indigenous concepts of engagement, empowerment, community, and agency. Appropriately, the conference was attended by-and guided by- Native Americans from the Abenaki and Apache nations. Judge Robert G. Yazzie (Apache) delivered the keynote address for the closing ceremony. Other notable speakers over the three days included Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who gave a ferocious rebuke of Trump’s attack on judicial independence, Burlington City Mayor Miro Weinberger, social justice philosopher and legal expert Adam Foss, domestic violence scholar Leigh Goodmark, and President Obama’s point person for the Flint, Michigan water crisis Kathleen Falk. Every speaker was passionate, informed, and purposeful with their remarks. Some gave riveting addresses that will have ripple effects for years to come.
As all of these dynamic thinkers outlined in their talks and workshops, at its core, restorative justice is a response to social and personal harm that views all participants-both actors and receivers/ perpetrators and victims/abusers and survivors-as possessors of inherent dignity and value. This is a basic but essential truth about restorative justice that makes it different than the current system based on blame, judgement, punishment, division, dehumanization, and extreme forms of pain.
Like the current system that favors punitive methods such as zero tolerance laws, mandatory sentencing, mass incarceration, “enhanced interrogation,” state sanctioned torture, the militarization of the police, racial profiling, the school to prison pipeline, and the death penalty, restorative systems are multifaceted, ever growing, and sometimes loosely defined; their scope also influences everything from elementary school disciplinary policies to international acts of war and genocide.
Unlike the current system, restorative justice strives to achieve a set of goals that has a number of significant consequences antithetical to the status quo. For example, the restorative model approaches each “case” as an individual with unique experiences. The restorative model assumes that all human beings have freedom which allows them to shape their own future. Even the worst criminal in the world is endowed with certain inalienable rights. Moreover, every single human being-no matter what crime they have committed-has the potential to learn, adapt, grow, and become a meaningful part of the life experience within a community. Regardless of incarceration, the actor and the receiver of a crime have a right to shape how they are responsible for what happened, in what ways they can move forward despite what happened, and why certain decisions are made concerning their future.
Ultimately, restorative justice systems are based on the belief that all humans are instinctively creative, relational, communicative, self-reflective, and responsible for their actions. Generally speaking, proponents of restorative justice ask: What does a justice that heals looks like? What would responses to injustice look like that don’t involve criminal justice assumptions and protocols? It is key to see that this is not about abolishing all prisons, getting rid of our law enforcement apparatus, or forgiving people for committing heinous acts. It is about restructuring prisons-and every other facet of criminal justice-to be more interpersonal, cost effective, productive, and safe. It is about following the findings and lessons of sociology, psychology, jurisprudence, social work, and common sense to provide genuine opportunities for reform. Whether coming from the perspective of an academic looking at sexual assault, a social worker in child protection, or a family counselor from New Zealand, the theme of the conference was utterly compelling: for a variety of reasons, a system primarily based on punishment and retribution is bound to fail and has been failing terribly for decades.
The current system often treats people as merely representing groups in a symbolic fashion rather than being viewed as individuals with customized needs and evolving goals. The current system arrests, judges, and imprisons as knee jerk responses to conflict; it cuts off relationships as a mode of “rehabilitation,” and takes away the ability for all parties involved (besides the State) to have a voice at the table. Conversations and negotiations are mediated by those who know the least about the participants experiencing the conflict. In other words, from the prosecution of a crime to the enforcement of laws to the sentencing of the accused, the goal of the criminal justice system is to deny and suppress self-agency in the decision making process and to take away personal responsibility from the equation.
Perhaps the most troubling result of the criminal justice system has been an appalling mass incarceration epidemic. The U.S. has less than 5% percent of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s total prison population. In fact, the United States has more African-Americans incarcerated today than the South had slaves throughout the American Civil War. By any measure, the staggering economic and social costs incurred by the current system is unsustainable and immoral. Many of the conference presentations went straight to this point. Some examples included: “Restorative Responses for Cases of Social Media Hate and Harm in Educational Institutions: Theory to Practice,” “Take Back the Streets: Improving Public Safety and Health Through Peacekeeping,” and “Restorative Work with Unlikely Players: The Feds.”
Other workshops highlighted the broad reach of restorative justice initiatives and projects as an alternative to the paradigmatic operations within criminal justice today. “Decriminalizing Domestic Violence: Restorative Justice as Part of a Balanced Policy Approach to Intimate Partner Violence ” and “Confronting Sexual Violence in Tribal Nations: The Limits of Legal Pluralism and Restorative Justice” were two that stood out for this participant.
Important to note, the restorative justice model is not predicated on the belief that people are intrinsically spiritual, ethical, or genetically predisposed in any way. It says nothing at all about the proven reality of a soul, let alone the probability of an afterlife. These are questions for theologians to debate.
Nor does restorative justice assume that race, gender, sexual orientation, or class are determining factors when it comes to receiving or giving justice. The pursuit of a justice founded on collaborative dialogue, mutual awareness, personal courage, public interest, and creativity is not bound by social constructions and ethical preconceptions. All that matters in a restorative justice practice (and system)-whether it be a talking circle, family conference, peer mediation, or truth and reconciliation commission- is the lived experience of individuals: their healing, sense of safety, and increased understanding. Imagine it: justice can be when the universal needs and feelings of everyone involved are honored and cared for with the highest level of humility and intention. In the words of Desmond Tutu:
Your ordinary acts of love and hope point to the extraordinary promise that every human life is of inestimable value.