This week we join people around the world in celebrating the power of restorative justice. For fifty years, international restorative justice week (the third week in November) has honored the indigenous roots of restorative justice while also promoting the various practices and opportunities to meaningfully apply restorative justice in our work today — a goal made explicit in this year’s theme of expanding access to restorative justice.
At Impact Justice, we’re working nationally to expand restorative justice as a safe and racially just alternative to neglecting the needs of those harmed and incarcerating people who cause harm. For nearly a decade, our partnership with a dozen communities across the country has demonstrated the transformative power of restorative practices to reduce and heal harm. Studies from our partners and beyond show that people who complete a community-based restorative justice process are far less likely to engage in future harm compared with similar individuals who are prosecuted, and that 9 out of 10 survivors of crime are so satisfied with the restorative process and outcomes they would recommend it to others.
Yet many communities still lack access, despite research showing that people impacted by crime want alternative options to the criminal legal system. Although awareness of and interest in restorative justice is growing, the opportunity to choose restorative justice as an alternative to the legal system is still limited. The European Forum For Restorative Justice notes several common barriers — from lack of enabling legislation as well as implicit racial biases that mean Black, Indigenous, and people of color have less access than others, to social narratives that continue to prop up excessively punitive responses to crime, even though research shows they ignore the needs of survivors and fail to keep us safe.
We know that transformation depends on building an inclusive movement for change and equipping people with the knowledge required to create and sustain restorative justice diversion programs. From our work, we understand that questions about access to restorative justice diversion need to be examined at multiple levels:
- At the individual level: Restorative justice helps the person who was harmed heal and the responsible party take accountability. How do we ensure that individuals know and can request restorative approaches when harm occurs?
- At the community level: How do we ensure that restorative justice is accessible to communities most impacted by harm? How do we equip communities, not systems, with the resources and capacity necessary to build relationships and heal together when harm happens?
- At the systemic level: How do we educate and invite system partners to be accountable to communities requesting alternatives to the criminal legal system? How can system partners serve as allies and build meaningful partnerships for communities to hold restorative justice practices? How can system and government partners help advocate for and use their resources to support community-held restorative justice programs?
- At the societal level: Why do we continue to invest in punishment paradigms, after decades of research show that they fail all of us? What will it take to divest from a punishment paradigm and invest in a restorative justice paradigm?
We believe that exploring these questions will respond to the abolitionist call to both “develop non-punitive measures to deal with harm and create new conditions to prevent harm from occurring in the first place, recognizing both as better approaches to ensure safety and security” (Abolition Constitutionalism, p.44). Over the years, we have dedicated our work to exploring and addressing these critical questions of access. Along the way, we have developed tools, resources, and meaningful relationships with a network of partners across the country committed to ensuring that restorative justice is truly accessible to those that need and want it most.
We invite you to engage with us this week and beyond to explore your own questions about accessing restorative justice and what we can do collectively to shift away from our current paradigm of punishment to one that is centered in restoration and healing.