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.

Read more…

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)

Restorative justice and system change

Ross London, in his recent book, Crime, Punishment and Criminal Justice – From Margins to Mainstream, argues that much of the identity crisis of the RJ field has been caused by the misguided notion of a “paradigm shift” popularized by my colleague Howard Zehr, one of the founding voices in the RJ movement, in his 1990 book, Changing Lenses.

According to London, the concept of paradigm shifts (used originally by Thomas Kuhn in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) is misleading when applied to the RJ field in that it assumes a totalizing transformation from one whole system to another entirely different system of operation.  Compared to the scientific revolution, for example, this would be like the shift in the scientific understanding that the earth is round, not flat, or that the sun does not rotate around the world, but just the opposite.

As a realist, London maintains that the current criminal justice system is so deeply entrenched and has developed over such a long time that it would be impossible to make a complete shift in the systematic nature and substance of this institution. On top of this, London insists that the RJ movement does not contain the necessary infrastructural brevity of thought or practice to provide an alternative paradigm that could replace the comprehensive influence of the modern criminal justice system.

Indeed, London would argue that this kind of total overhaul of the justice-industrial-complex should not even be our goal. He insists that RJ has made minimal progress in transforming the CJ system precisely because it has pitted itself against the system. According to London, in contrast to this posture of resistance, if RJ would abandon the use of paradigmatic language and instead strategically work from the inside-out it would be much more successful in transforming the justice system.

In summary London’s conviction is this: RJ would be considerably more influential if it would seek to be mainstreamed into the whole justice system and refocus its energy on shifting justice system values and priorities in the direction of restoration from the inside-out.

London’s argument has a great deal of appeal if one reduces RJ to a simple subset of justice values and practice skills that has the power to re-direct the internal trajectory of the current system. However, if you believe that RJ, actually or potentially, represents a comprehensive paradigm that could radically replace the current system, then London’s proposal of working from within is not acceptable. Social movement theory argues that critical mass transformative “tipping points” have historically occurred only when advocates of change on the inside and agents of provocation on the outside  have collaborated to reinforce the undergoing transformative changing of a system.

Borrowing from work in the natural sciences (quantum physics & chaos theory) some of us in the justice and peacebuilding field have integrated the language of Human Systems Dynamics (HSD) or Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) theory to help understand the phenomena of structural transformation. Human Systems Dynamics tell us that in order to impact a complex emerging system that seems to be intractable (like the criminal justice system), we need to think laterally and ask a different set of questions.   For example, how do we change the containers that hold the system in place? How do we change the differences in, and between, the various elemental components of the system? How do we change the forms and flows of exchange (reciprocities) between the relationships and structures that are currently occurring in and supportive of the system?

I am convinced that RJ as a social movement has the potential to move the current justice system into a process of monumental change. RJ as an ethical worldview, a corporate vision and as a practical strategy for national justice policy reform and practice has great potential to address all three points of change listed above.  It can provide alternative ways of doing and being that satisfy the requirements of true justice.


(Howard’s comments on Ross’ argument may be found in this earlier blog entry.)

Sources and references include the following:

Gladwell, M. (2000). The Tipping Point – How little Things can make a Big Difference.

Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Moyer, B. et al. (2001). Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements.

Ideas on HSD came from conversation with Dr. Glenda Eoyang, one of the founding voices in HSD. See this website for more resources.


May 2nd, 2013 – by Carl Stauffer Stauffer (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Imprints of justice – introducing Carl Stauffer


I am pleased that my friend and colleague Carl Stauffer has agreed to co-author this blog with me.  Carl has brought new wisdom, insights and energy to our program and will be providing academic leadership in restorative justice now that I’m semi-retired.  I have invited Carl to introduce himself below. – Howard


I grew up in the midst of war. I was born and raised in Vietnam, the child of church workers. Palpable sights, smells and sounds of violence were always around me. Memory “snap-shots” wash over me still: crawling under the bed with my mother and siblings when the house shook from the shellfire around us; hearing empty bullet cartridges falling on our tin roof as a US army helicopter rained down its machine gunfire on Viet Cong soldiers holed up in a petrol station near our home; seeing a charred, burnt-out tank in the ashes of post-war carnage; watching a dead North Vietnamese soldier, in full black garb, feet tied together, being dragged through the streets of Saigon amidst sneers of hatred and cheers of celebration – an ironic “victory” embedded in the desecration of the enemy’s dead. In 1975, three weeks before Saigon fell to the Communist regime, my family fled Vietnam and moved to the Philippines, just as the Marcos dictatorship was beginning to crumble. The motivational seeds of justice, peace and reconciliation were deeply planted in my spirit in those early years.

In 1988, three years after completing my social work degree, I was ordained to ministry and joined a team that initiated an urban, inter-racial church and community development program in the inner city of Richmond, Virginia. In 1991, I was appointed the first Executive Director of the Capital Area Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program (Richmond) that offered a diversionary victim offender conferencing (VOC) process within the adult and juvenile justice systems.

My family and I moved to South Africa in 1994, under the auspices of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a faith-based international relief and development agency. There I was privileged to work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, facilitating face-to-face encounters between amnesty applicants and the individuals, families or communities that where traumatized by apartheid violence. From 1996 through 1999 I formed an NGO coalition to pilot VOC processes in four different magisterial districts in Johannesburg. In the following decade (1999-2009), I functioned as a Regional Peace Advisor for MCC working at transitional justice and post-war reconstruction processes in 30 countries both on and off the African continent.

In 2010, I accepted the faculty post of Assistant Professor of Justice and Development Studies at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. My academic interests focus on narratology, transitional justice, and post-war reconstruction and reconciliation. My current research concentrates on the critique of transitional justice from a restorative frame, and the application of hybrid, parallel indigenous justice systems. I am married to Dr. Carolyn Stauffer a sociology professor, and I am the proud father of two young adult children.

It is an honor to be tapped as Co-Director for the Zehr Institute for RJ and to give leadership in the development of a Masters degree in RJ for CJP. Working with Dr. Howard Zehr, my former MA advisor, colleague, coach, mentor and friend, continues to be a great privilege. I am inspired for my work in RJ by the words of Augusto Boal:“When dialogue becomes a monologue, oppression ensues.”


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

Upcoming webinars on schools and prison

Two new webinars are coming up.

The Promise and Challenge of Restorative Justice Practices in Schools

School applications are probably the fastest growing area of restorative justice. What are the potential benefits? What are the barriers and challenges to implanting restorative justice practices? What works and what does not?

In this webinar, Nancy Riestenberg and Rita Alfred will offer lessons and stories from their extensive experience in this field. Whether a novice or experienced practitioner, this webinar will be of interest.

Nancy Riestenberg has over 25 years experience working in violence prevention, child sexual abuse prevention and restorative measures in schools. She has worked with school districts in Minnesota and twenty other states, from the Cass Lake-Bena School District in Minnesota to Chicago Public Schools. She is the author of Circle in the Square: Building Community and Repairing Harm in Schools. Currently she is a school climate specialist for the Minnesota Dept. of Education.

Rita Renjitham Alfred is the co-founder of the Restorative Justice Training Institute. Rita consults with and trains schools, district personnel, students and parents in the Bay Area in restorative justice (RJ) and peacemaking circles.(PMC). She has used RJ practices to address crises such as homicides and suicides at the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). She introduced the use RJ and PMC as the restorative justice coordinator at Cole Middle School, resulting in a dramatic decrease in the referrals to expulsions, suspensions, and violence on campus.

Howard Zehr will facilitate the webinar.

When Restorative Justice Goes to Prison

What relevance does restorative justice have within a prison environment? What are the possibilities, and what are the challenges or pitfalls? What happens when restorative values are juxtapositioned with the retributive and controlled-oriented values that predominate in prison? Who should take the lead in promoting restorative justice there? What do prison-based programs look like? Are there differences in the way it is articulated and received in prison as compared to the work outside?

These issues and more will be explored by two uniquely qualified resource people:

Tyrone Werts was sentenced to life in prison in 1975. In Pennsylvania, where he was sentenced, life means life and commutations are exceedingly rare. In the early 1990s, he was part of the first restorative justice program at Graterford prison. For many years, Tyrone was president of the Lifer’s Organization and provided leadership to many other initiatives in prison. Then, after 37 1/2 years, Tyrone’s sentence was commuted in recognition of his outstanding integrity and accomplishments. Since March 2011 he has been on the outside, working with the public defender’s office and with the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program that allows college students and prisoners to study together.

Barb Toews is a long-time restorative justice practitioner and trainer. She was director of a restorative justice program in Lancaster, PA, before joining the graduate program at CJP. After graduating, she worked for a number of years developing and facilitating restorative justice initiatives, often in collaboration with incarcerated individuals, in Pennsylvania prisons with the Pennsylvania Prison Society. She is now completing her PhD, focusing on the privacy, well-being and the design of correctional facilities. She teaches at Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College, where she uses the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program model. She is author of The Little Book of Restorative Justice for People in Prison and co-editor of Critical Issues in Restorative Justice.

Howard Zehr will facilitate the webinar.

More information and registration:

February 20th, 2013 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)

Restoration is a metaphor

In an earlier blog entry I discussed the importance of metaphor and promised to say more about how this applies to justice. Here, finally, are more thoughts on metaphors and justice.

The following points are inspired by James Geary’s book, I Is An Other:  The Secret Life or Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World as well as by earlier reading, most importantly George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By. Numbers in parentheses are page numbers from Geary.

  •  Metaphors are fundamental to thought, communication and emotion. They shape the way we make sense of the world.
  • We use one metaphor for every 10-25 words, or about six per minute. ( 5).
  • “…thinking is a kind of simulated interaction with the world, a metaphorical engagement that makes what we imagine more realistic.” (105)
  • Metaphors highlight and clarify aspects of reality but because they are a comparison and not an exact match, they also hide and obscure realities.
  • The best metaphors are “sticky” but once they take hold, are often mistaken for facts.
  • Many – perhaps most – of our metaphors are unconscious, below the surface. Even when we are conscious of them, we are often unconscious of all the baggage they bring with them.
  • The effectiveness of a metaphor does not depend on its truth but on its easy accessibility. (148)
  • Metaphoric names and language vary in their effectiveness. One reason “global warming” has not been taken more seriously is that it may be too mild to convey a sense of crisis. (120)

Our justice language is full of metaphors. Some, such as the “war on crime” or the adversarial system as a boxing match, are easy to identify. But others are much more subtle and unconscious. For example, we often treat justice as a commodity:  justice is spoken of as “received” or “given.”

Sometimes in restorative justice we use the metaphor of “healing.” One critique of the healing metaphor is that it may promise too much. Another is that it is a medical metaphor, and medical metaphors for crime during an earlier rehabilitation era led to some unfortunate consequences. Like all metaphors, it highlights certain characteristics or goals, but like all metaphors, it is also likely to hide or mislead.

The restoration image in restorative justice itself is a metaphor.  t is a metaphor that communicates and resonates, which may account in part for the popularity of the term and concept. But the resonance of the metaphor also helps to account for the growing misuse of the term. And like all metaphors, “restorative” is bound to hide and mislead.

What are the implications and down sides of the restorative metaphor? What new metaphors for this kind of justice can we imagine? I welcome your ideas.

Webinar series: We are continuing the webinar series that started last fall. The next webinar is entitled “The Promise & Challenge of Restorative Justice Practices in Schools” on Feb. 27.

To view or download the last webinar, “Does Restorative Justice Need Forgiveness,” click here.

January 31st, 2013 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)

Does restorative justice need forgiveness?

Webinar: Does Restorative Justice Need Forgiveness?: A dialogue with Sujatha Baliga

On January 5, The New York Times Magazine carried a story about the use of a restorative conference in a murder case in the early stages of the legal process, prior to a plea. The case was also highlighted on theToday Show a few days later. The story was entitled, “Can forgiveness play a role in criminal justice?” (See the story on EMU News: “Coverage in NY Times and NBC Sparks EMU Webinar on Restorative Justice”)

Conferences like the one highlighted in that article are sometimes used prior to formal prosecution in “lesser” cases, and victim-offender dialogues are now common post-sentencing. However, a conference to negotiate a plea in a murder case is highly unusual.

How did this case unfold? What can restorative justice practitioners learn from this pioneering case? What is the relationship between forgiveness and restorative justice? How do we relate to the media on these issues?

Sujatha Baliga, the lawyer and restorative justice practitioner who facilitated this process, will be our guest for this webinar. Howard Zehr, who facilitated the connection between the two families and Sujatha and played a background role in the case, will chair the session. Viewers will be able to submit comments and questions through a chat forum.

This webinar is intended for restorative justice practitioners but is open to anyone, though a basic knowledge of restorative justice is preferred. For those without that background, The Little Book of Restorative Justice provides a short introduction.

(Watch the recorded webinar now!)

January 22nd, 2013 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Real world restorative justice webinar series and more

I realize that a new blog entry is overdue, and that the following does not get me off the hook, but here is an announcement.

Our program is launching a new series of restorative justice webinars entitled Real World Restorative Justice. The first four will be free and I will be hosting most of them. More information is available from this website:

Here is the link to watch the recorded version of the first webinar.

Starting in January we will also be offering two on-line courses.  Prof. Carl Stauffer will offer a short course in January & February on transitional justice.  I will offer one entitled “Conversations on restorative justice:  critical issues” starting in February and ending in late April or early May.  Watch our website for more information.


Several recent books address restorative justice in some way:

Biblical scholar and restorative justice practitioner Chris Marshall has published Compassionate Justice: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue with Two Gospel Parables on Law, Crime, and Restorative Justice (Cascade books). As I say in my endorsement of it, “His blend of biblical scholarship and contemporary insights from the social sciences and humanities will be of interest not only to Christians but to others concerned about justice in today’s world.”

Drawing in part on restorative justice, Albert W. Dzur argues for a partnership of professionals and citizens through an expanded role for juries in Punishment, Participatory Democracy, & the Jury (Oxford UP).

A Spanish version of my early book, Changing Lenses:  A New Focus for Crime and Justice (Herald Press) was just released this week.

Finally, the next book in the Little Books of Justice and Peacebuilding, due out this spring, is David Karp’s The Little Book of Restorative Justice for Colleges and Universities (Good Books).



September 11th, 2012 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)

Metaphors matter – in photography and in justice

Our metaphors matter – in photography and in justice

As a photographer, I’ve often reflected on how frequently photographs serve to divide rather than create connections between people.  It is so tempting to emphasize the “otherness” of subjects rather than what we have in common.  As a result, photographs often leave subjects feeling degraded and violated.  They undermine rather than build a sense of community.

Photography can exploit or it can respect.  Its impact depends on how it is conducted.  That, in turn, is determined in subtle, often unconscious, ways, by how we talk and think about what we do when we photograph.  How we do photography is affected by how we view photography and that in turn is affected by the images and metaphors that shape our language.

When we think and talk about concepts or, in fact, anything that we cannot see or touch, we compare them to other things.  Consequently, most of our ideas about the world are couched in images and metaphors.

When we talk about justice, we often “right” wrongs or “weigh the evidence,” using the image of a scale.  In the western world, we talk about time as if it were a commodity: we “save” time, we “spend” time. When people of faith try to comprehend the mystery of a Creator, we often rely on human images such as father or mother or judge. In such cases, we are using something we understand to comprehend and symbolize something we know incompletely.

Our metaphors subtly shape how we see and react to the world.  When we talk about a “war on crime,” for example, we are using the metaphor of battle to describe a social problem.  This metaphor in turn reinforces certain stereotypes and assumptions.  It emphasizes the “otherness” of offenders, disguising the fact that they are much like us.  By objectifying an “enemy,” the war metaphor allows us to justify all sorts of actions against those who have caused harm.  This metaphor creates the false assumption that the solution lies in weapons, in “outgunning” the enemy, in deterrence through fear.

In photography, the words and metaphors we use are profoundly disturbing. We “shoot” or “take” a photo.  We aim our camera. The language of photography is predominately aggressive, predatory, acquisitive, imperialistic.

This militaristic image is reflected in the design and marketing of equipment.  Cameras with their protruding lenses often look like weapons and are often designed to put in front of our faces like masks or guns.  And they are advertised this way.  A famous lens manufacturer announces that its “new snub-nosed zoom shoots to kill.”  An ad for a photo lab has a cowboy holding a camera like a gun against a western sky with a “wanted” poster on the wall behind him.  A store for professional photographers advertises that the company is “responsible for over 2,876,431 shootings.”  It touts its “arsenal” of equipment and promises that its service will “blow you away.”  We call our compacts “point-and-shoot” cameras.

The way we actually photograph, unfortunately, frequently reinforces this image of photographer-as-aggressor. Often we approach photography like a hunt, stealing photos and collecting images like trophies. We sneak  photos with a telephoto lens without the subject’s consent.  We use the camera to avoid interacting with our subjects.  We treat the photos as commodities with no input from the subjects about how they are portrayed, how the image is edited or where it is used.

Is it any surprise, then, that subjects feel violated and that photos so often divide and degrade?

Fortunately, there is an alternative way to approach photography.

When we photograph, we do not actually reach out and take anything.  Rather, we receive an image that is reflected from the subject.  Instead of understanding photography as taking, we can envision it as receiving.  Instead of a trophy that is hunted, an image is a gift.

In reality, photography is a matter of opening ourselves to receiving.  Such photography means cultivating a attitude of receptivity, an openness to the unexpected.  This approach is more like meditation than a hunt.

Conceived in this way, photography requires respect for the subject.  The subject plays a crucial part in our creation and thus involves a reciprocal exchange. As photographer John Running says in his book, Pictures for Solomon, “Making a photograph is usually a collaboration between the photographer and the subject.  It doesn’t matter if the subject is a landscape, a still life, an animal or a person.”  As a result, he says he tries to photograph “with care, respect, truth and wonder.”

If we are committed to this approach, our images should seek to convey respect, not arouse pity – to humanize rather than depersonalize.

Full collaboration and reciprocity between photographer and subject are not always possible.  Nevertheless, we have a choice.  Photography can be an act of piracy or a form of meditation.  If we recognize images as gifts, if we cultivate an attitude of receptivity rather than acquisition, then our photography will certainly be affected by this in positive way.

Only when we photograph with care, respect, truth and wonder can we create photographs that encourage rather than destroy life-giving community.

Whether we are seeking justice or doing photography, our metaphors matter.  In a future entry I will look more specifically at some justice implications.



July 7th, 2012 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Photography, Restorative Justice)

Where will we find justice for Trayvon Martin?

David Anderson Hooker

The following is an invited guest post by my friend, colleague and fellow Morehouse College grad, David Anderson Hooker.

Update July 18, 2013:  An interview with David following the Zimmerman trial can be heard here:

I have good news and bad news for the family and supporters of Trayvon Martin: The ‘justice’ you seek is not in the system from which you seek it!  If this sounds like a Jedi mind trick, I apologize.  I hope though that it will at least cause some to stop and think.

The bad news first: The ‘justice’ you seek is not in the system from which you seek it! In the late 1970’s and 80’s Black psychologist Bobby E. Wright coined a phrase – “Mentacide: The systematic destruction of a group of people’s minds with the ultimate aim being the complete extirpation of the race.”   The prime example Wright offered of the workings of Mentacide was when African American parents would send their children to the public schools with curricula that at best neglected and at worst denigrated their entire heritage. Then the parents would complain about the impact on children’s’ self-esteem.

Similarly today, the fact that the family and supporters of the family of Trayvon Martin are looking for relief to a justice system that has historically discriminated against African Americans seems naïve and idealistic, if not fully wrongheaded.  But I think the greatest disappointment will come from the hope that the judicial system could actually provide justice.

The reason the so-called justice system is not the answer in this instance and so many others is because the system asks the wrong questions.  Judicial justice asks: What law was broken?  Who is responsible?  What punishment do they deserve?

Traipsing down this rabbit hole will end up with twisted explanations of how it is ever acceptable to kill an unarmed person, let alone an innocent teenager.  It is not clear whether a law was broken – though I fully concede that George Zimmerman should at the very least have been arrested while someone answered that question.  What happens if the answer to that question is that no laws were broken?  If that’s the case, then no punishment will be required.  And that leaves us all without answers.

The better questions to ask are the typical questions of restorative justice:  What HARM was done?  What will it take to put it right?  Who has the obligation to make it right?  What process would be most effective to involve everyone who has a stake in making it right?  This approach doesn’t excuse what by all indications was the senseless killing of a young Black man.  Rather what it does is acknowledge that this killing and the official response have created many breaches that need to be repaired.

The family has experienced a loss; this needs to be addressed.

George Zimmerman’s life has been irreparably altered – he will both want to make amends and he will need to find ways of healing from the irrational ‘negrophobia’ that likely initiated this fatal sequence.

The image and respect for every aspect of the law enforcement community has been downgraded.  In order to work most effectively, law enforcement needs to have the MERITED trust of their community.  You can’t ask for the community’s cooperation to prosecute wrongdoing when it seems that law enforcement is willing to selectively prosecute.

The sense of community is damaged.  I am not familiar with the racial and class climate in Sanford, Florida but I can’t imagine that this in any way improves it.  Likely any divisions in the community fueled by racially and ethnically-charged mistrust have hardened.  In order for civil society to flourish, trust must be established or restored.

So here’s the good news: The ‘justice’ you seek is not in the system from which you seek it!

Justice is the establishment of right relationships.  In this case, justice would include improving the sense of safety – not insecurity bred by implicit bias, but actual safety for people walking the streets; assurance that law enforcement is about justice and not JUST US; and creation of laws that favor people over property and that don’t give privilege or place to actions based in racism – by shooters, sheriffs, Assistant State’s Attorneys or anyone else.

While it is essential that we continue to demand accountability for the actors including the shooter, the sheriff and the Assistant State’s Attorneys, the sense of balance and vindication is more likely to take a long time to establish.  This will require dialogue and discussion, including the following:

  • Having the Zimmermans and other members of that community hear from Trayvon’s families about the hopes and dreams dashed by this senseless death.
  • Hearing from George Zimmerman and others who describe the life experiences that have resulted in an irrational fear of young Black men.
  • Allowing law enforcement and media to participate in dialogue to recognize that they play a significant role in creating and perpetuating the irrational fear.
  • Examining the legal permission to act on irrationality that is granted by the  “stand your ground” policy.

This will require restitution and reshaping of both laws and practice.  This will require asking different questions.  This will require a full community effort – and possibly result in an actual sense of community.

Restoration is possible and the good news is this:  you don’t have to wait for the current justice system to act to begin to establish the justice you seek.

David Anderson Hooker (J.D. M.Div.) is a lawyer, minister and mediator. For more than 25 years he has worked with communities in the US and throughout the world to host difficult conversations including post-war and post-riot reconciliation, environmental justice and restoratively transforming historical harm and injustice. He is also former Assistant Attorney General for the State of Georgia and an Associate Professor at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University.

April 4th, 2012 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)