What does restorative justice look like? We hear and read a lot about it, and its popularity is on the rise, but when I ask people to tell me what it means to them I often get vague answers. The truth is that restorative justice is taking forms undreamed of by those that started the movement decades ago. Their basic principles are intact: responsibility, care for all stakeholders, putting those harmed in the center of the process, repair instead of retribution, etc. The manifestations continue to multiply though.
Last year, I was in Illinois studying a particular method of conflict resolution called Restorative Circles. There were a lot of practitioners there, and it was an intense period of learning for all of us. Towards the last day we heard a presentation from someone who participated in an adaptation of the process, called micro circles. It was practiced in his family, and informally in other relationships. We all sat rapt as he explained how the adaptation had been worked out, and he passed valuable lessons on to us. The presenter was a young man, aged eight or nine. He was practicing restorative justice in his own world, and he didn’t need a law degree, a federal grant, or a courtroom to do it.
One of the challenges of restorative justice is to create new systems and ways of resolution that aren’t completely enmeshed in old paradigms. How can we get it out of box some folks try to neatly fit it in? The very fact that restorative justice is often applied in a court setting in response to actions that are violations of rules and laws limits its scope. This is not to say that it shouldn’t be used in such a setting, but instead that much broader possibilities exist. Where else can it be used?
All relationships and settings include the elements necessary for restorative processes to take place. Restorative Circles, created by Dominic Barter and colleagues in Brazil, started in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, slums with no law except for the drug gangs that control them. The process is used to address a full spectrum of conflicts, from arguments between kids to murders committed by rival gangs. Next, circles found their way into schools.
Dominic Barter recalls that at first the circle facilitators in a school would be increasingly called upon, then, after awhile, requests for facilitation would become less and less. Puzzled, they discovered that the students themselves were conducting the circles. The kids had absorbed and adapted the process, making it their own. Today Restorative Circles have been spread around Brazil in cooperation with the government, and in some cases have even been included in the formal criminal justice process. That is restorative.
Another example is in New Zealand, where restorative justice in the juvenile and adult systems has been in place for decades, with good results. There, it is practiced under the aegis of the courts and mandated for juvenile offenders. The process is called Family Group Conferencing. Like all restorative processes, it seeks to address the needs of everyone affected by a harmful action. The success of conferencing has led to its adoption in several places, including Thailand, the United Kingdom and Australia. In New Zealand and Australia it is also used for child protection cases. Bringing together all of the willing stakeholders, conference decisions have the force of law behind them, equal to a decision by a judge.
In the United States the same process has been adopted in several places, particularly in Maryland, where it is known as Community Conferencing. They are held in schools, workplaces, within families, in response to serious crimes, in juvenile cases, and in neighborhood disputes. The Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, and its affiliates elsewhere, has had success in helping to create solutions in all of these settings. By empowering the victims, offenders, and community, they discover strategies that utilize all available resources, and that have a high rate of success.
In Connecticut communities have the option of creating Juvenile Review Boards. They are more common in small towns and rural areas. The boards are funded by local governments, who have a lot of leeway in determining how they are designed. Usually they are composed of people who work with kids, such as police, teachers, and counselors. They are often run by the police or youth service bureaus. The procedure is informal, bringing together those affected to find a remedy to the problem. The boards typically deal with minor delinquent acts or with kids at risk for delinquency as determined by their behavior at home or school. The purpose is to keep kids out of the court, which is associated with an increased risk of further contact with police and the prison system. Solutions include community service, writing papers, apologizing, and other means of engaging youth in a constructive way.
These are just a few examples. Internationally, the European Union has formally called for restorative justice in all member nations. This is applied in different ways, as outlined in a recent EU report. Efforts are underway in India, Kenya, other African nations, and in several Central American countries.
Here in the United States programs of all types are being implemented, not only in courts, but also in schools and communities. Some practices are even being used in homes. I hope that this trend continues.