Where are the gaps? We need your help.

In the early days of the restorative justice field, from the late 1970s into the early 1990s, I was in a unique position to resource this emerging field. As Director of the Office on Crime and Justice of Mennonite Central Committee U.S (MCC), my mandate was to do what needed to be done.

Although the program’s staff was very small (usually a part-time assistant and me) and was not endowed with huge funding, I had time and sufficient financial resources to create materials, organize gatherings or conferences, and to help communities that asked for assistance in understanding and implementing restorative justice projects. I also had access to the significant publication and communication capabilities of MCC. Part of that time, MCC Canada had a similar office and we often collaborated.  Before undertaking any major initiative, I would usually call upon a small group of ad hoc advisors for their feedback. My primary focus was upon communities and and practitioners.

When trying to decide what needed to be done, and where to focus resources and energy, I asked a series of questions: 1) Where is the field going?   2) What does it need to move ahead, and most importantly, 3) What are the gaps? That is, what needs to be done that isn’t being done and that our small program might be able to address? In other words, I tried to avoid duplicating efforts and focused on pieces that I felt were missing.

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January 3rd, 2014 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)

Reflections on Mandela

“Have you heard that Mandela died?” The staggering impact of this question took my breath away as I stepped into the office after teaching a full day of classes at Eastern Mennonite University on Thursday, December 5th. I texted my daughter who had grown up in South Africa, with these simple words, “Wow – this is huge!” Mourning the enormous loss of Mandela has evoked memories of living in South Africa from 1994 to 2009.

During my first two of 16 years living in South Africa, I was privileged to shadow a great mentor, Morontshi Matsobane, who spent 14 years in the prime of his life (ages 26-40) in prison for his political activity – 12 of those years were spent on Robben Island with Mandela.

Morontshi was released in 1990, just three months after Mandela. Shedding bitterness and hate, he immediately returned to the community organizing and development work that put him in prison to begin with. I observed Morontshi patiently mediate peace and security needs in a transitional period marred by violence as the country struggled for its dignity and the equal redistribution of land, labor, and livelihoods. In many of these negotiations, he was interacting with the very apartheid ‘security’ apparatus responsible for his harassment, arrest and eventual imprisonment. Morontshi is one of the most gracious, forgiving and kind souls I know. He is one of many persons who we called a “little Mandela” – and there were many like him.

As the example of Morontshi demonstrates, Mandela and his ways have taken root in the collective psyche of South Africa and have changed much of the world’s psyche. He embodied what it meant to live with integrity and with few regrets. Indeed, his leadership presence seemed to be encoded with the moral fiber that now guides conceptions of good governance and just polity at a global level. Mandela transmitted his DNA to us. And herein lies the hope.

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December 16th, 2013 – by Carl Stauffer Stauffer (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Restorative justice and the Gandhian tradition

I recently had occasion to reflect on some of the points of resonance between restorative justice and the Gandhian tradition.  I am particularly grateful for the help of my friend Sujatha Baliga in this.

As a Mennonite, I grew up in a family and a tradition of nonviolence and peacemaking, and knew something of Gandhi.  However, it was as a student at Morehouse College, during the civil rights era, that I engaged more deeply.  It was there that my understanding of the Gandhian tradition was mediated through the work and example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (whom I had the privilege to meet), Dr. Vincent Harding (a long-time influence on my life), my professors and the civil rights activists with whom I came in contact.

Many observers (and not only those within what has been called the “peacemaking criminology” tradition) have noted that our criminal justice system is based on, and enforced by, violence or the threat of violence.  Political scientists often point out that the basis of the modern state is the “legitimate monopoly on violence.” The criminal justice system is a major player in enacting and expressing this:  “You’ve harmed us, so we will harm you.”

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October 23rd, 2013 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Next webinar: RJ, public policy and compassion

Our next webinar is coming up on October 23, with Chris Marshall from New Zealand as guest

Chris is both a restorative justice practitioner and a biblical scholar. He is probably the world’s leading scholar bringing together restorative justice and the Christian tradition, and in a way that has immediate relevance to overall society. In his book Compassionate Justice, upon which this webinar is based, Chris brings modern insights from psychology and justice to bear on two famous biblical parables, then goes on to explore the role of compassion in public policy generally.

The webinar will be of use to those interested in the Christian tradition from a religious and/or sociological/historical perspective, but will also be of interest to those involved in restorative justice generally.  His argument and its implications have to do with restorative justice practice in general and its implications for public policy.

See our website to join:  http://www.emu.edu/cjp/restorative-justice/webinars/rj-compassion/

Here is the description posted there:

Taking a cue from two well-known parables of Jesus, in his new book Compassionate Justice, Chris Marshall argues that the true significance of restorative justice lies in its capacity to mobilize compassion in the service of justice, at both a personal and political or institutional level. In this webinar, Chris will discuss his approach of bringing biblical teaching into dialogue with restorative justice theory to generate new insights into both, as well as to suggest achievable goals for the justice system and public life in general.

Chris Marshall is a New Testament scholar and long-time RJ practitioner in New Zealand with a longstanding involvement in restorative justice. He is currently Head of the School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Among his many publications are Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision of Justice, Crime and Punishment (Eerdmans, 2001), Crowned with Glory and Honor: Human Rights in the Biblical Tradition (Pandora, 2001), The Little Book of Biblical Justice (Good Books, 2005) andCompassionate Justice: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue with Two Gospel Parables on Law, Crime and Restorative Justice (Cascade, 2012).

October 9th, 2013 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Fall restorative justice webinar series

Our fall webinar series begins Sept. 18.   Click here for more information.

Although there is a small charge for participating live on these webinars, scholarships are available.

Please join us!


Real World Restorative Justice Webinars

A Project of the Zehr Institute

Fall 2013 Schedule

September 18:
Seeking Justice in Societies Transitioning from Violence with Beatrice Pouligny

October 23:
Restorative Justice and the Cultivation of Public Compassion with Chris Marshall

November 13:
Fambul Tok: Community Transitional Justice in Sierra Leone with John Caulker

December 4:
The Paradox of being an Indigenous Restorative Justice Practitioner with Harley Eagle


September 12th, 2013 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)

Justice for Trayvon Martin – Adjudication or community? (Part III)

(Last of the three-part series by David Anderson Hooker)

I take issue with three groups of comments that I’ve heard since the Zimmerman trial. I know that I am in disagreement with several individuals and institutional voices that I respect deeply. Yet I think our approach must change to get the life we want: a life in which everyone has full and fundamentally equal access to the resources and opportunities needed for full actualization.

Comment #1 – “The system failed.”  The criminal adjudication system is not equipped to fulfill the task it was assigned in this case: to make meaning of a senseless death. The primary function of a criminal proceeding is to discover facts and assign individual responsibility for any wrongdoing.

In this case, the basic facts were clear: An older, white-looking man saw an African American child who he deemed suspicious. Ignoring police direction, he followed the child who was talking on the phone while walking home from the store. The child told his friend that the man was “creepy,” indicating a sense of discomfort at being followed. At some point, the older man got close enough in his pursuit that he and the child had a direct confrontation. The man was armed; the child was not. The child was shot and killed. The man walked away.

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August 5th, 2013 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Justice for Trayvon Martin – The fear factor (Part II)

As I argued in my last blog entry (Part I), making a difference must start with approaching justice differently.  Justice describes the relational qualities among people. Said another way: justice is rooted in community. For actions to be just, they must be aligned with established community values or seek to restore the quality of relationships that are aligned with those values. Because I don’t believe the criminal adjudication process effectively defines justice, I offer the following as my description:

Justice exists when systems, institutions, and relational patterns are all aligned, oriented and operating so that every living being has full and fundamentally equal access to the resources and opportunities needed for full community thriving and individual actualization.

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August 1st, 2013 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)

Justice for Trayvon Martin – Where do we go from here? (Part I)

In this three-part series, guest blogger David Anderson Hooker follows up on his earlier post, “Where will we find justice for Trayvon Martin?”  

Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman.  Dead. Alive. Dead! Not responsible. Like the President.  Like Emmett Till.  Like every other child that has been murdered senselessly by gun violence.  It was reasonable to be afraid.  Stand Your Ground.  Negrophobia and other reasonable racisms.  Nothing has changed.  The President’s speech was a game changer.   

In many ways this is such a fast moving story that it is hard to know when or where to jump into the conversation.  And yet this is a slow moving conversation that hasn’t changed tremendously since the days of Emmett Till, James Chaney, Micki Schwerner, and Andy Goodman.  So many similarities: boys trying to do the right thing – or at least minding their very own business – get killed senselessly and the criminal adjudication system (fully distinguishable from a “justice” system) does not hold anyone accountable.  Some people are outraged while others think the situation is overblown.

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July 29th, 2013 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

An “anarchist” genius to restorative justice?

Guest blog post by Brian Gumm.  

One of my abiding interests during and after my time studying restorative justice at CJP with Howard Zehr was the influence of Anabaptist-Mennonite thought and practice in the formation of the modern restorative justice movement.

Howard has gone on record as saying his intellectual formation was influenced in part by the late Mennonite pacifist theologian, John Howard Yoder. And while I’ve never picked Howard’s brain about the particulars of this influence, I continue to look for hints and echoes of Yoder’s thought in the vision for restorative justice that Howard taught me.

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July 15th, 2013 – by Brian R. Gumm Gumm (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Restorative justice and system change, part II

In the previous blog entry, Carl started his discussion of restorative justice and system change by challenging part of Ross London’s argument in Ross’s recent book, Crime, Punishment and Criminal Justice – From Margins to Mainstream.  This entry led to an important discussion.  In order to continue this dialogue, we are publishing Ross’ response, with minor editing, as a guest blog entry. Readers may wish to read the previous blog entry and the resulting discussion as a background to what follows.

Hi Carl

This is a really important discussion that  I would be happy to be engaged in with you, my friend Gerry Johnstone and others: how can RJ move into the world of serious crime and adult offenders?

I happen to agree with you that social movements require a bold, radical “avant garde” approach to lay the groundwork for transformation. In positioning RJ as a new paradigm, Howard Zehr was able to ignite an idea and propel it into an international  movement. This  could not have begun with a modest proposal for mere reform.

But there has been a cost to this way mode of presentation.  What I have argued  is that  positioning RJ as a new paradigm brings with it a kind of dichotomizing tendency associated with many other ideas that have also been framed as new  paradigms.  This encourages a tendency to dismiss  attempts at reform as “co-optation” and, in insisting on the  original purity of a concept, the automatic rejection of  features of the “old paradigm” regardless of their utility and moral value.  (Examples include due process of law, equality of treatment, proportionality  in sentencing, the right to counsel etc.)  Along with this is a tendency to uncritically embrace every feature of the new  paradigm, however questionable (such as penal abolition and  disposition by private negotiation, even for repeat and violent criminals).

So, how can we move RJ into the ” mainstream” without thereby losing its soul? This has been the focus of all of my work.

The answer I  believe, is to try to understand what  exactly IS the soul of RJ.  My answer may sound simple but I  really do think it is true: the  soul of RJ is the effort  to repair the harm of crime. This is an utterly original and unique contribution to our understanding of criminal justice that  Howard has put forth so effectively, and something that every RJ advocate, regardless of political or philosophical orientation, can agree upon.  The mechanisms we devise to  achieve the goal of repair are all secondary considerations. What is very clear to me is that the goal of restoration does not require the  dismantling of the current criminal justice (CJ) system and its replacement with a radical alternative.  Instead of conceiving  of CJ as the antithesis of  “conventional” CJ, (i.e. one that is, in Kuhnian terminology,  “incommensurate” with conventional CJ), what I propose is to conceive of restoration as the overarching goal of criminal justice - one that may inform, reform and transform  all of our practices toward a common end. The means we choose to achieve repair in every case may therefore extend to  every aspect of CJ – from policing to corrections – and may extend to the full range of practices, both within and outside of the conventional system.

To escape our present marginality, therefore, I argue that RJ must be open to a plurality of means to achieve the end of  repair – and must place primary focus on the real needs of victims. As my book states:

In truth, nobody “owns” restorative justice.  The original visionaries of restorative justice  have bequeathed to the world a wonderful gift -  an idea to transform criminal justice as we know it.  The true beneficiaries of this gift are neither the theorists nor the criminal justice practitioners, but rather those who suffer from the trauma of crime.  The challenge to restorative justice theory and practice is to develop a criminal justice system that is more effective, fair and humane in order to address the needs of crime victims and communities, without preconceptions as to what they “really need” and without limitation to those practices that conform to a favored “paradigm.”

I would love to explore this further with you and your blog readers. And let’s get together some time and talk it through!

Best wishes,


July 8th, 2013 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)