How do we encourage good restorative justice practice?

This guest blog, by Matthew Hartman and Fred Perloff, was first published in the RJCO Quarterly and then appeared on the Justice Outcomes website.  Matthew is a CJP graduate.

In May 2015, the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice organized and facilitated a “Restorative Justice Consultation” in Harrisonburg, VA. This was a gathering of 35 restorative justice practitioners and academics from across the globe to discuss the current state of the restorative justice field and start exploring a vision for where the field might go. One of the topics that was discussed was the decades-old discussion of how to implement best practices, standards of practice, and professionalism, with the aim of preventing harm done in the name of restorative justice.

Inevitably this conversation begins with someone expressing the concern that the current growth of restorative justice will lead to people and programs that don’t align with restorative justice values and principles, or worse, are causing further harm. Heads begin to nod, and the brainstorming begins on how to prevent this. The brainstorming session lands on the need for the field to agree upon standards, best practices, training minimums, and to develop a litmus test for programs and practitioners to determine how “restorative” they really are. But then we hear a warning from those who are committed to the grassroots and lay practice of restorative justice: the creation of standards by professionals is anathema to the very nature of restorative justice. Setting limits to the flexibility and creativity of restorative justice through comprehensive definitions, clear parameters, and hierarchical controls of the practice ultimately breaks down the foundations of restorative justice. For restorative justice to remain true to its values, it must remain responsive to the constantly changing and inherently unique needs that arise when harm occurs in any given community. Standards, the argument continued, will ultimately diminish the capacity of both professional and lay practitioners to respond to their communities’ or clients’ immediate and individual needs. With a deep sigh, the conversation temporarily ends with a stalemate.

Ultimately, what works our collective bellies into a knot is the idea that some entity who is not on the ground doing the work would determine the best practices for the rest of us. Even more alarming is the thought that this entity would hold programs and practitioners accountable to their abstract standards. But this thinking should give us pause. What if we saw these inevitable growth pains as an opportunity to grow and organize ourselves in accordance with our values and principles? Aren’t we supposed to be well-versed in what non-authoritative and non-hierarchical accountability looks like? If so, why have we not pursued the development of a way for us to be accountable to standards and each other without creating or depending on an authority structure? Why can’t we rely on restorative justice’s central and foundational value of relationship? Restorative justice maintains that meaningful accountability, outside any formal hierarchy, is based on relationship with each other. Responsive, transparent, and trusting relationships, coupled with thorough assessment and evaluation informed by those we serve, should be the cornerstone of a system of accountability.

In thinking through what we need to do to create such a system of accountability, three things come to mind.

As restorative justice practitioners, our personal identity is often deeply entwined with our work. Our passion and diligent work towards just communities and responses to harm is fueled by this identity. It also contributes to the difficulty of listening to a colleague tell us why they believe one of our programs may risk doing harm, or worse yet, not be restorative. How many of us would sit through that conversation without becoming defensive, without taking it personally, or without judgement of the person across from us? Our first step as practitioners is to diligently work towards being reflective practitioners, inviting criticism, questions, ideas for enhancement, all with an aim of moving our work towards the restorative end of the philosophical spectrum. Co-optation of our work (by ourselves or our funders) becomes significantly less likely if we aspire towards this kind of open and reflective practice.

In a conversation with Rachelle Cunliffe, Professor of Restorative Justice at Portland State University, she articulated that critical to being reflective is thorough and effective monitoring and evaluation. Cunliffe emphasized that we cannot be reflective or responsive, if the information we are reflecting on isn’t emerging from those we serve. We must work towards finding and utilizing resources to develop meaningful evaluation strategies that help us to hear the voices of those we serve, and then respond through consistent and committed program revision.

Lastly, we must be proactive in building relationships with each other, based on mutual responsibility and accountability. We should work towards risking enough with each other to speak out when a practice is highlighted that causes concern or pause – to trust that these difficult conversations will be entered into with respect and curiosity, not judgement. What would our practice and field look like if we began inviting these conversations, and thanking those that risk trusting us to hear.

That is our starting place, and that work begins every day for each one of us. This is not to say that an agreement upon standards of practice to guide our work won’t soon be necessary, useful and meaningful. But that’s not a problem. The bigger question is how do we enforce those standards and how do we hold each other accountable to them? I believe that the high value we place on relationships can guide us in this quest.

What do you think? Is accountability through relationship sufficient to prevent abuses or do we need more centralized enforcement? How could a web of relationship serve to create the level of accountability we are seeking? Would this model work for both professional and lay practitioners, in both urban and rural settings, for both indigenous and non-indigenous? To whom would you turn for feedback on your practice? Are you committed to being a reflective practitioner who is open to receiving feedback about your RJ practice? Let’s hear from each other on this subject, and in the coming years, collaborate to overcome what has been a reoccurring obstacle for the field of restorative justice.


Fred Perloff has been a volunteer restorative justice practitioner for Resolve Center for Dispute Resolution and Restorative Justice in Medford, OR. He also serves as a facilitator for the Oregon Department of Corrections’ Facilitated Dialogue Program for survivors of serious & violent crime.




Matthew Hartman currently is a Principal with Just Outcomes ( and the Restorative Justice Coordinator for Clackamas County Juvenile Department in Oregon City, OR.  He also serves as the President for the Restorative Justice Coalition of Oregon and on the Steering Committee for the NW Justice Forum. 

CR Headshot-16

October 13th, 2015 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice, restorative justice standards of practice)

Kindred spirits: restorative justice and permaculture

Guest blog by Jonathan McRay

blog pic

A Liberation Ecology

Peacebuilding and sustainability often treat one another with suspicion. Both fields obscure the unbreakable lifeline between them with oversimplified arguments like social justice versus the environment, jobs versus nature preserves. Artificial distinctions between people and planet are dangerously misleading because our lives and all their conflict and health come from soil and sunlight. Economic inequity, political oppression, and historical wealth from slavery and ethnic cleansing are inseparable from the ruin of soil, forests, and water. All arise from structures and daily practices of exploitation and waste, supremacy and violence. Sustainability will sustain nothing without challenging and transforming power and privilege. Peacebuilding cannot build peace unless it includes redistributing land use and renewing energy sources. We need much more than superficial mediation and fossil fuel efficiency.

We cannot divorce the social and the ecological because the former is sustained by and immersed in the latter. This is my central point: social justice and land care are intimately interrelated. To speak of one is to necessarily speak of the other because:

Nature shapes culture: Human cultures are always sustained by the land community (soil, water, air, plants, and animals). We have to eat. This rule has no exceptions.

Everywhere is different: The land community is endlessly diverse and unique across soils and seasons. No place is exactly the same because each one has distinctive capabilities and limitations.

Attention is required: Observant care is necessary to tend to diverse contexts and conditions. There is no global policy for sustainability.

Culture shapes nature: These contexts and conditions include human histories of nurture and exploitation that shape how the land is used, who cares for it and owns it, how decisions are made, and how the wealth is shared or not.

Histories of exploitation are histories of transferred trauma, from deforestation to displacement. “Hurt people” hurt people and the land in a spiral of violence, forcefully represented by the industrial agricultural and prison systems.

Monoculture and mass incarceration are simple solutions defined by extraction of soil, water, and people; disconnection of cycles of nutrients and healing; waste of money, energy, and opportunities; enslavement of lifeforms and, constitutionally, of prisoners; and uniform answers to complex and contextual relationships. The same mindsets and systems that disproportionately imprison people of color are the same ones that deplete the earth and displace communities from their homelands. All the supposed benefits we receive (more food, less crime, efficient technology, and improved quality of life) have murky and unseen externalities that we export to be suffered faraway by inmates, overseas factory laborers, migrant workers, landfills, eroded fields, and dead zones. Rehabilitation – empowering good health and good skills – is impossible without reinhabitation – understanding ourselves as living within actual places on the earth and developing the skills to live there well.

Restorative justice and permaculture helpfully serve as particular ways to express general themes like peacebuilding, conflict transformation, land care, and sustainability. They need to unite because their cause is common. A liberation ecology of social justice and earth regeneration grows from polycultures of diversity and collaboration.

Fair Questions

In criminal justice systems, crimes are violations of laws and offenses against the state, not against those harmed. The legal system often atomizes and alienates those who were harmed and those who harmed: stories of context and trauma are rarely heard except to prosecute people called “offenders,” who are sent to prisons where they are further entrenched in destructive cycles and environments.

Justice, according to restorative justice, is not an eye for an eye or the antecedent to the American way. Instead, restorative justice is constituted by a set of questions, which are always more transformative than definitive answers:

  1. Who has been hurt and what are their needs?
  2. Whose obligation is it to meet those needs (and what are their needs?)
  3. Who else has been affected by this event?
  4. What is a participatory process that engages all those impacted to decide what needs to be done?

These questions can aid communities in strengthening themselves by giving decisions to those involved instead of passing power to groups uninvested in and unaffected by the outcomes.

Restorative justice’s name assumes more than its definition because we cannot restore justice to dead people or eroded soil. Even so, restorative justice is more about tending to the present by giving space for conflict and preventing harms from further destroying lives than about reinstating an unattainable past. Its questions maintain a dual focus on specific harms and the personal and socioeconomic conditions that incite violence. Permaculture suggests that these same questions can and should be asked about abused landscapes and watersheds.[1]

Everything is Related

Permaculture is a design strategy and land ethic for creating human communities that live well within their local ecosystems. Permaculture pays attention to the diversity, resilience, and renewal of ecological patterns in order to design regenerative agricultures and sustainable cultures. Rooted in ecology, systems theory, and subsistence cultures, permaculture is the design of functional relationships: learning how the gifts and needs of each element work with and benefit others. Everything is related and we must care for it.

Three ethics animate permaculture’s design principles and methods:

  • care for the earth– husband soil, forests, and water
  • care for people– look after self, kin, and community (and I add stranger)
  • fair share– set limits to production and consumption, and redistribute surplus into the first two ethics         

Permaculture recognizes that all our food, fuel, and fiber come from nutrient and water cycles, energy flows, and the miraculous plant-and-soil conversion of sunlight and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates and oxygen. Dinner and democratic movements cannot happen without photosynthesis.

However, we can grow all the food we want but without just and transformative responses to conflict, cooperative ways of making decisions, and collective action for structural change, we will all be well-fed enemies. We cannot have transformative cultures without regenerative agricultures, but we will not have regenerative agricultures without transformative cultures: the stories, traditions, and livelihoods that help us live together for a long time.

Polyculture Partners

Restorative justice needs something like permaculture because localizing crime control is inadequate when our material existence depends on a privatizing global economy. Without understanding our ecological lives, restorative justice cannot deal with some of its most important questions: What are the root causes of the violating behavior in the offender, the community, and society? What are the social structures and relationships we desire?[2] Still, reinhabiting land will not alone resolve economic disparity and exploitation, racial oppression and forced assimilation, or denied self-determination and decision-making exclusion. Restorative justice helps permaculture understand dynamics of conflict and provides examples of inclusive decision-making; permaculture gives restorative justice a way out of remaining a temporary safe space that never challenges the economic and energetic foundations of society.

Restorative justice and permaculture together express a radical social and ecological justice that exposes the roots of the spiral of violence, reimagines the roots of our relationships and practices of care, and roots ourselves in places to cultivate these practices and return decisions and participation to communities. Permaculture designers and restorative justice practitioners are facilitators of health. Neither engineer solutions but instead guide delicate and intimate conversations about pain and possibilities.

Important critiques can be made of both restorative justice and permaculture. Both have been accused of cultural appropriation of indigenous worldviews, individualistic theories of social change, the omnipresent reality of failing original visions, and white-racialized rhetoric and practices. White permaculturists and restorative justice practitioners are often like many other white people: scared by the past and angered by their complicity to the point of denial. We are often colorblind to our own power and privilege.

However, restorative justice can offer vision and practices for transforming conflict, inclusive and participatory decision-making, recognizing and healing cycles of trauma, and accountability for the consequences of harm to others. Permaculture can offer ethics and design for transforming ourselves from parasites to members of the land community, participation in thriving forms of sustenance, recognizing and healing cycles of waste into fertility, and accountability for the consequences of using our only world. Both offer questions and ethics of caretaking for setting things as right as possible in relationship to one another. Both combat the industrial fabrication of waste: the idea that things and people are disposable. At their most liberating, permaculture and restorative justice are allies for community building and designing ecological and social systems that empower all voices and share the land’s abundance.


Jonathan McRay is a community peacebuilder and garden coordinator with New Community Project’s Vine and Fig, a collective that cultivates and celebrates works of mercy, social justice, and sustainable living through permaculture and food justice, hospitality and education, community organizing and contemplation. He worked in Palestine/Israel and Mozambique and has an MA from the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Jonathan lives with his wife Rachelle and friends on a small farm in the Shenandoah Valley.

[1] A place defined by the common course of water (streams, rivers, rainfall, and underground aquifers).

[2] David Dyck, “Toward a Structurally Responsive Restorative Justice,” in Handbook of Restorative Justice: A Global Perspective, edited by Dennis Sullivan and Larry Tift (New York: Routledge, 2006), 535.

July 13th, 2015 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Violence as a theological problem

[Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Ted Grimsrud. More on Ted below.]

We live in a world where all too many people purposefully contribute to the harm of other human beings either by action or inaction. Most violence emerges with some kind of rationale to legitimize its use. Based on his work with extremely violent offenders, the psychiatrist James Gilligan argues that even the most seemingly pointless acts of violence still have some justification in the perpetrator’s mind.

Supposedly rational uses of violence like warfare and capital punishment follow their own self-conscious logic. At the core of this logic rests a commitment to the necessity of retribution. When the moral order is violated by wrongdoing, ‘justice’ requires revenge.

Throughout the world, religiously-based violence draws heavily on the logic of retribution—think of the struggles in Northern Ireland, the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the Sri Lankan civil war. The legitimacy of retribution is also a common cultural reference point in the United States, but where does it come from? In the U.S., it links directly to a particular brand of Christian theology. Deeply ingrained in the religious consciousness of the United States is the belief that retribution is God’s will.

Read more…

February 17th, 2015 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding)

The shock of forgiveness

Guest blog by Fabrice j. Guerrier


Hell is not merely a fiery story of eternal damnation written in a book; hell is what civilians experience in times of war. It is a lived experience that brings deep psychological trauma. War disintegrates the very social fabric people live in – their sense of safety, hope, and security. War separates, demonizes the other, and unleashes the worst in our human capacity to commit great evil.

“With their machetes, the child soldiers ripped open the stomach of pregnant women to see who would win the game in guessing the gender of the unborn baby.” This was a story I heard this summer, when I travelled for the first time in Africa to Sierra Leone to undertake a field research project exploring issues of justice. My question was, “How do we even begin to satisfy the justice needs of people after mass atrocities, genocide, and gross human rights violations?”

After the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone, many ordinary citizens in the rural villages were dissatisfied with the transitional process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the UN-backed Sierra Leone Special Court. These were very much top-down processes that seemed to satisfy the needs of the international community but not the local community.

I worked with Fambul Tok International, an NGO that was formed after the war to address community reconciliation through community-led peacebuilding efforts, including truth-telling ceremonies rooted in indigenous traditions. Fambul Tok means ‘family talk’ in Sierra Leone’s Krio language and is a grassroots process. The research was intended to assess Fambul Tok’s effectiveness as a community-based, post-war transitional justice process in Sierra Leone.

As we drove through the dirt and rocky roads to access remote villages, the trembles of the car shook away my sense of worry as it reawakened childhood memories from my native country Haiti. It has been 300 years since my ancestors were uprooted around the same area in West Africa and brought to Haiti on slave ships. I said to myself, “I’m happy to be back after so long”.

Through the focus group interviews I conducted, I was able to enter a sacred space within the Sierra Leonean culture. I was shown a mass gravesite where hundreds of bodies had been dumped during the war. As I walked closer to the grave, I could but imagine the suffering they endured. Every single one of them was human. Each had family and dignity and now they lay wasted, buried. How many humans have perished in countless wars throughout history? I felt my mind flood with anger and despair slowly crept into my soul as I was confronted by the meaninglessness of life.

I shared a meal with a town chief and heard many stories. I believe stories are gifts and I carry every single one of them with me today as I write this piece. Through stories the spirit of people is passed down and remembered.

A woman told how the rebels had burned down her house, killed her husband and daughter, and stole all her cattle. She recognized the perpetrator as her neighbor, and had known him since he was a child. Even though there was a lot of pain and sorrow, she understood that since he lived in the community, neither she nor the community could move forward without reconciling with the person who had caused this harm.

I was shocked at how many people were willing to forgive. They said that healing the wounds of their society and village could not take place without it. They believed that it was an essential element to stop the cycles of violence. I was shocked because I expected to hear a more punitive, western approach to justice in which prisons are always the solution and the perpetrator is removed from the community.

I observed that this was generational difference; most of the adults valued forgiveness while the youth quickly sought a punitive approach to justice. It seemed that most of the youth were too young to remember the civil war or had not lived it. However, the older generation recognized that the need for the collective reconciliation outweighed their own primal lust for revenge.

There is a great need to localize justice processes all around the world in places of conflict; people need to be given a voice in shaping their own futures. I believe having a sense of ownership in the process of post-conflict reconstruction is fundamental and is one of the key ingredients for satisfying the needs of people after they experience war and its horrors. What would justice look like after the current conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, and Iraq? As we speak millions of people are isolated, displaced by waves of pain that continue to drown their sense of hope.

Even though I acknowledge the value of various approaches to justice – restorative, retributive and indigenous – I do not wish to romanticism any one of them. What I know for sure is that we need to allow people to collectively decide for themselves and not impose a “universal” because context always matters. I believe this is what Fambul Tok has done, and has done well.

As for me. I was changed in this way: having observed the experiences of the people of Sierra Leone and their ability to overcome the horrors of the war through their wealth in values, I am no longer bogged down by the trivial things in my life when something goes wrong. I live more lightly.


Fabrice J. Guerrier is currently a 2nd year graduate student at CJP. He was born and raised in the Republic of Haiti. He completed his B.S. at Florida State University in International Affairs with a focus in Political Science. He also holds a Leadership Studies Certificate through the FSU Center for Leadership and Social Change. Fabrice founded and ran a small non-profit think tank called The LEEHG Institute for four and half years. He has extensive leadership experiences in community outreach and student organizations and has a chapter published on his work in the newest edition of the Student Leadership Challenge book by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. Fabrice interned this summer at U.S Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in Washington D.C. He currently works as the Graduate Research Assistant for the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice.

September 11th, 2014 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Jails aren’t the problem

As is the case in many communities, our jail is full.  (“Overcrowded” is the usual term, but how can something be “over” crowded? It’s crowded, or it’s not).  Although a study is being conducted, the company doing the study is an architectural firm, so it seems inevitable that a new jail will be recommended.

In this interview by local journalist Andrew Jenner, I argue that building a new jail will not solve the problem. The issue lies earlier in the system.


September 5th, 2014 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Uncategorized)

A case of mistaken identity

On the day before the conference began I was walking through the market in Victoria, Tamaulipas, Mexico with friends Katia Cecilia Ornelas-Núñez and Nuri Nusrat. When we emerged from the church on the square, two men were staring at me. We ignored them and began to walk away but they approached us, identifying themselves as journalists.

Someone had called their office to say that prominent poet and human rights activist Javier Sicilia was in town. Apparently I look like him; both of us have gray beards, wear glasses, and wear similar hats.


Javier Sicilia

We convinced the journalists that I was not Sicilia, but then they approached us again in the market and one of them, Marco Esquivel, asked if he could take a picture with me, explaining the resemblance to Sicilia. He next proceeded to interview me and became intrigued with restorative justice.

Read more…

July 15th, 2014 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Restorative justice in education – possibilities, but also concerns

The following is a guest blog post by our colleague in the EMU Education Department, Kathy Evans.

There is a great deal of momentum right now for implementing restorative justice in education. This makes me incredibly excited – and a bit nervous.


Let’s start with the good news! RJ is gaining lots of attention in education. Recently, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education came together to issue a colleague letter alerting schools that they can be cited for disproportionately disciplining students in certain categories. These federal agencies then recommended restorative justice as one way to address disproportionate discipline in schools!

Schools across the nation, from California to Virginia, are moving to replace their zero tolerance policies with restorative justice approaches. Every week, I get notices about school-based restorative justice programs popping up. That’s exciting! Closer to home, EMU has just begun the nation’s first graduate program specifically focusing on Restorative Justice in Education (RJE). It’s a great time to be an educator who is looking to implement RJ!

Read more…

June 26th, 2014 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Reflections on reconciliation and forgiveness

The following is a guest blog post by CJP graduate Sanjay Pulipaka.  A short bio can be found at the end.

Sanjay Pulipaka Photo

Often Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have been initiated as a response to mass violence. It is interesting to note that the phrase “reconciliation commission” is used in responses to mass violence but not ‘forgiveness commission.” Why is that so?

What is forgiveness? When a victim stops feeling anger, resentment, and/or refrains from seeking compensation for crime/misconduct/misdeed perpetrated by an offender/individual, then it is deemed that forgiveness has come into play. Forgiveness is essentially an act of a victim. Forgiveness can be unilateral wherein an individual or group of people may bestow it on others without an explicit request for it. Sometimes, forgiveness is initiated when an individual acknowledges that their actions may have resulted in unwarranted infliction of pain/suffering and seeks normalization of a relationship.

Forgiveness necessitates that the anger in a relationship should be addressed. However, does transcending grief constitute an essential component of forgiveness? Is it possible to grieve and yet forgive? Is there a possibility that sustained grief may prompt individuals to rescind their forgiveness? I don’t have answers for these questions.

Read more…

June 18th, 2014 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

What are your “core texts” for restorative justice?

Changing Lenses:  A New Focus for Crime and Justice, initially published in 1990, is often viewed as a foundational work in the restorative justice field.   It has gone through several editions, and now the publishers plan to release an “anniversary edition” next year, the 25th year since its first release.

I need your help.  I would like to include a bibliography of essential reading, developed from suggestions by people in the field.

What are your favorite texts?  What reading do you consider essential to understand the concept and practice of restorative justice? You can add your suggestions as comments below or, if you prefer, email them to me.

Thanks for your help!


June 5th, 2014 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)

Restorative justice and the arts

Don’t miss our webinar next week!

How can artistic practices and approaches be applied in restorative justice? In what ways might restorative approaches and principles inform artistic practices? In this webinar, the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Restorative Justice Program will provide a case study in the intersection of socially-engaged art and restorative justice.

The Mural Arts Program incorporates the theory of restorative justice in providing art instruction, mural making, community service work and a paid work program, (the Guild) within the criminal justice system. Inmates, returning citizens and juveniles are afforded the opportunity to learn new skills and make a positive contribution to their communities to repair prior harm caused, reclaim public spaces, develop competency skills and engage victims of crime in dialog. The Mural Arts Program has focused its Restorative Justice work in three areas: inside Graterford State Correctional Institution; with its Guild Program; and with the juvenile justice system.

Join Jane Golden, Executive Director, Robyn Buseman, Restorative Justice Program Director, and a program artist to learn more about the program and view the work.

Howard Zehr will facilitate the webinar.

Registration is free.

When: April 23, 2014, 4:30-6 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (United States)

April 16th, 2014 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Photography, Restorative Justice)