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What is Restorative Justice?

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What does restorative justice mean? You may have heard the phrase used in your children’s schools, in speeches by prosecutor candidates or judges, or perhaps you even have some idea about it from watching “The Redemption Project”.

Restorative justice is a very broad concept. It is a way of responding to harm, including crimes. In our society we typically respond with finger-pointing and punishment. “Who dun it?” and “What do they deserve?” In restorative justice the response is, “Who has been harmed?” and “Who’s responsibility is it to repair the harm?” Its focus is on repairing harm and improving relationships.

Although this process is new in our criminal legal system, it is common in situations involving children, and is the community response in many traditional, indigenous societies. In indigenous cultures, a crime can harm the entire village. A common image of Native Americans using restorative justice is a community sitting in a large circle, passing around a peace pipe, with everyone having their say about what happened and deciding as a group what needs to happen going forward. In school or a family, you can think of it as the two children in conflict using their words to explain what happened, what they were thinking or feeling and then (with help) deciding what needs to be done to try to make things right. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was a restorative justice process. It provided a way of healing and moving forward. Restorative justice is also used extensively in the Canadian and Australian justice systems.

Restorative justice is an option for handling crime when the principals involved on both sides of the harm freely choose it, and the person(s) who caused the harm admits to doing so. The process involves the people who are hurt meeting with the people who caused the harm and a facilitator. The harmed parties may include community members too if the community-at-large has been affected. Those harmed get a chance to describe their pain to the person who hurt them. They also get a chance to ask their questions, such as “Why did you do this?” “Now, what do you think about what you did?” The person(s) who caused the harm gets a chance to tell their story, answer questions, and apologize if they desire. Together, those harmed and those who caused the harm decide what needs to be done to make up for it – perhaps paying back what was stolen, repairing what was damaged, or getting treatment for an addiction.

Criminal justice reformers prefer restorative justice as opposed to our current system, because it produces better outcomes. The person who was harmed is the center of this process. His/her needs drive it, and the vast majority of people harmed are quite satisfied after restorative justice is completed. In our usual court and trial process the harmed person (the victim) is somewhat sidelined. It is the State versus the Defendant. The harmed party serves as more of a witness. Using restorative justice the person who caused the harm better understands the consequences of their actions. They are held accountable by making amends that are meaningful to the person they harmed. Afterward, they can feel like they have earned their way back into society.

Restorative justice can be used as an alternative or an adjunct to the current legal system. It is also very useful in family and community conflict. Everyone’s voice is heard, and all take part in crafting a resolution. Future articles will explore its use in more detail. If you have a question that you’d like to see answered in a future article or a story you’d like to share, please email it to restorativejustice@owof.org.

This column is part of a series created by the Restorative Justice Action Group of Chelsea's One World One Family organization. The series invites readers to reflect on individual and community challenges such as conflict and crime, and the approaches we take to meeting them.

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