What is restorative justice?
At its core, restorative justice is about relationships—how you create relationships, maintain them, and mend them. Grounded in the idea of interconnectedness, restorative justice provides an alternative way to address wrongdoing. Wrongdoing is seen as a damaged relationship, a wound in the community, a tear in the web of relationships. A harm to one is a harm to all.
A principle of restorative justice is recognizing that crime is a violation of people and interpersonal relationships, that those violations create obligations, and that the central obligation is to — as much as possible — do right by the people harmed.
In practice, to address harm, restorative justice brings together those who have harmed, the people harmed, and affected community members into processes that repair harms and rebuild relationships.
Howard Zehr’s The Little Book of Restorative Justice, describes the differences between restorative justice and the criminal legal system through questions. Our criminal legal system operates by asking three guiding questions:
1. What law was broken?
2. Who broke it?
3. What punishment is deserved?
In contrast, restorative justice invites a fundamental shift in the way we think about and address crime by asking:
1. Who was harmed?
2. What do they need?
3. Whose obligation is it to meet those needs?
Additionally, restorative justice asks:
4. Who has a stake in this situation?
5. What are the causes?
6. What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to make things right and address underlying causes?
Restorative justice offers a paradigm shift away from punitive responses and a set of practical tools within a new paradigm to resolve and prevent crime. Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth explains restorative justice in more depth, and the Zehr Institute does as well. See below for our thoughts on the origins of restorative justice.
I or someone I know has experienced harm and would like to have someone facilitate a restorative justice process. Can you help me?
We are not a direct service organization, which means we do not facilitate cases. Please refer to our Resources page for a list of wonderful organizations across the country, some of which do facilitate cases.
Where does restorative justice come from?
Restorative justice practices in the United States are frequently traced back to Native American origins. Although restorative justice practices among First Nations communities in Canada have been well documented, less has been written about restorative justice in the US from Native American traditions. Part of the difficulty in tracing this practice in the US is that for many Native American people, restorative justice is not a program or a model, but rather a part of their lives and culture. In the words of Chief Justice Emeritus of the Navajo Supreme Court, Robert Yazzie, coming together to determine how to “move forward in a good way” was something that emerged out of a worldview of interconnectedness. This, however, is not a singular view; there are hundreds of native tribes, nations, and other indigenous communities in the US, each with their own form of addressing conflict and many would not want their processes labeled “restorative justice.” Some feel the term itself colonizes indigenous justice practices.
In addition, lessons from non-indigenous communities, such as the Mennonite community, have informed the growth of restorative justice in the United States. And beyond our nation, Māori notions of justice also influence the discourse around the meaning of restorative justice.
We recognize and honor that people from different indigenous communities have been in community and resolved harms through ways that we might call restorative justice, and they may or may not call it that. Indigenous communities aren’t monolithic. Moreover, we are insufficiently informed about each indigenous community’s approach to justice and healing. Part of honoring this work means we must stay grounded in the practice of constant learning.
Why don’t you use the words victim or offender in your materials?
We believe, in the words of Bryan Stevenson, that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” We use the terms “person harmed” and “responsible youth” or “young person” instead of “victim” and “offender,” because we are all human. We all deserve for our humanity to be the first thing recognized about us. We should not be defined by our actions when we have all done or experienced harm. We want to allow for change and growth, not define someone by a static event that happened.
Former Chief Justice of the Navajo Nation, Robert Yazzie says that in Diné, there is no word for “offender”; rather, they say a person is, “acting as if you don’t have a family.”
At a listening session around restorative justice held in British Columbia, Faith Tait from the Nisga’a Nation of 7,000 people said, “We don’t have a word for offender in our language, the word we used is ‘unhealed.’”
How can I receive a training from the Restorative Justice Project?
At this time, we’re unable to offer general trainings to the public, as our work is limited to the National Restorative Justice Diversion sites with which we are building deep relationships. On our Resources page you’ll find other organizations offering trainings. We hope to expand our work in the near future so we can offer trainings upon request. We’ve also launched our National Training and Innovation Center for Restorative Justice Diversion that includes many
helpful tools and resources, including webinars, readings, and a toolkit on how to start a restorative justice diversion program in your community.
How do you choose which restorative justice diversion sites to work with?
We generally select sites on a “first come, first served” basis and based on the following considerations:
- Commitment of a community-based organization(s) that wants to develop and hold an RJD program. Our model is most beneficial when community partners are rooted in the community, participating in community coalitions or support networks, and aligned with our core elements (i.e. pre-charge programs, centering the needs of people harmed, ending racial disparities)
- Presence of allied systems partners, such as District Attorneys, or other referral sources, that are committed to our core elements
- An opportunity to end racial/ethnic disparities in youth criminalization
- Urgency and readiness for restorative justice diversion in the jurisdiction
- Presence of local truth and reconciliation efforts aimed at addressing structural harm
- Regional focus on the Midwest
How can I bring restorative justice to my community?
Please see our Resources page, which lists restorative justice organizations across the country. There may already be people or organizations involved with restorative justice in your community with whom you could connect. We’ll also publish a toolkit on how to start a restorative justice diversion program in your community.
Are there opportunities to bring restorative justice diversion to my community?
Absolutely! We invite sites that are interested in bringing RJD to their communities to check out our available Training and Innovation Center Resources, including our Restorative Justice Diversion Toolkit, which provides detailed information that sites can use to begin building RJD programs in their own communities. From there, we are happy to talk to sites that are looking for additional guidance and technical assistance by exploring openings to join our national RJD cohort. Additionally, there may already be initiatives around restorative justice happening in your community! Please check out our Resources to see if there is an existing restorative justice organization you could connect with.
Why do you advocate for a restorative justice diversion model that is pre-charge?
The Restorative Justice Project believes a pre-charge restorative justice diversion model allows the youth who caused harm, the people they’ve harmed, and community members to reap the benefits of the restorative process without suffering the debilitating consequences associated with judicial system involvement. Moreover, a pre-charge program allows the county to keep costs down by avoiding the use of court processes, the assignment of a probation officer, prosecutors, and defense attorneys.
Can one of your staff come speak at my conference, school, or organization?
Please fill out our Contact form and let us know details of the speaking opportunity, including if it is related to a specific topic (youth, young adults, community-held alternatives, etc.). We love to share our work and learn about the work of others, while also balancing our priority to provide training and technical assistance to our National Restorative Justice Diversion sites.
When is your team doing public talks or events?
Please check out Impact Justice’s Twitter, FaceBook, and Instagram feeds for updates about upcoming events involving members of the Restorative Justice Project team.