Howard Zehr: Pioneer of restorative justice

By Randi B. Hagi | July 20th, 2015

Howard Zehr

Howard Zehr first started moving out of his “comfort zone” by enrolling in Morehouse College, founded for black men in 1867, and becoming its first white graduate in 1966. (Photos by Kara Lofton)

Howard Zehr – writer, editor, speaker, educator, photographer, mentor – has made an indelible mark on the Eastern Mennonite University community and the theory and practice of justice worldwide. From his early work with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to the publishing of Changing Lenses to his work as an educator at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Zehr is renowned as a pioneer of “restorative justice” and catalyst for the field’s expansion across the world.

Early years

Zehr was born in 1944 to Edna Elizabeth and Howard Jacob Zehr, a Mennonite pastor and General Conference mod-erator. As a freshman in 1962, he heard theologian John Howard Yoder speak at Goshen College, a Mennonite school in Indiana.

“He talked about our need to get out of our comfort zone, to learn to adjust to other people, to put ourselves in the midst of the real world,” says Zehr. “That just convinced me I had to leave.”

Zehr withdrew from Goshen, and ended up at Morehouse College – founded in 1867 in Atlanta, Georgia, as the Augusta Theological Institute, a ministry school for black men that would eventually become a bastion for historically black liberal arts education. Zehr wasn’t the only white student at Morehouse – there were a handful of others who typically came for a semester or so due to the excitement around the civil rights movement. He did join some protests at Morehouse, although he’s “never been particularly drawn to marching.”

“My task was to prove I was a serious student,” says Zehr. “I did; I graduated [in ’66] second in my class. At the end, I was accepted as just another student, although I was obviously white.” He was the first white graduate of Morehouse. He then earned an MA in European History from the University of Chicago (’67), and began teaching at another historically black institution – Talladega College in Alabama. In 1974 he earned a PhD in modern European history from Rutgers University.

The genesis of Changing Lenses

In the late 70s, Zehr returned to the Goshen College area of Indiana and became the founding director of the first U.S. victim-offender reconciliation program, Elkhart County Prisoners and Community Together (PACT). Zehr cites three main reasons for the necessity of this work.

First, “we were really concerned that victims were not only being left out of the justice process, but they were re-traumatized by it. So we wanted to provide a better experience and more options for victims,” Zehr explains. Second, the justice system was ineffectively using punishment under the guise of accountability. “Accountability is understanding the harm you’ve caused, and doing something to make it right,” says Zehr. Third, the exclusion of the community in justice system decisions was a disempowering oversight. PACT worked on a program to address all of these issues – work that laid the practical foundation for the field of restorative justice.

Concurrent with his PACT work, Zehr became MCC’s director for crime and justice in 1979. In the ’80s, while in the trenches of this community-minded justice work, he sat down to write a “provocative essay.”

“I just wanted to stop and think about those assumptions and approaches that we take for granted,” says Zehr. “I didn’t know the language of social construction, but I understand now that our concept of justice isn’t written in the universe. It’s socially constructed on some bad theology and bad law, but it’s socially constructed. So the question is, ‘Can we look at that social construction critically?’”

His analytical musing was published as Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice in 1990. “It felt like a crazy book – I really expected it to be laughed at. And the funny part was, nobody laughed.” Instead, people took Changing Lenses seriously – sometimes in unexpected ways. Zehr remembers presenting it in Portland, Oregon, to the head of a prison system, a prosecutor and a judge. “I expected them to say, ‘This is just totally crazy,’ and instead, they claimed they were trying to do part of it!”

Everything about the book, including its marketing process, was unorthodox. The publisher, as is usual, had asked Zehr for a list of journals that might review the book. When a year had passed without reviews, he discovered that the publisher had lost his list. “The book started out as a word-of-mouth book; it really took off without a lot of marketing, which was interesting. That was a cool way to have it take off.” A new edition of the book has just appeared, marking the 25th anniversary of Changing Lenses.

Howard Zehr

Howard Zehr’s passion for photography – from portraits to nature scenes – has helped him to balance the verbal and visual sides of his brain, enabling better storytelling.

Gauging his impact

The “provocative essay,” along with Zehr’s Little Book of Restorative Justice published in 2002, popularized the term and concepts of restorative justice, helping to spark an explosion of interest from academics and practitioners worldwide. Implementation has occurred in various courts from California to Europe, and has branched into fields far removed from the criminal justice system.

New Zealand’s model of restorative justice takes place in the youth justice system, and is their first response to youth infractions – “keeping kids out of the system entirely.” Various jurisdictions in California have begun similar projects. Several cities across the world have pledged to be “restorative justice cities,” a trend set by Hull in the United Kingdom, in which the city’s major organizations work together to employ restorative justice practices and values in businesses, schools, and daily community life. At the same time, Zehr points to the United States’ “massive incarceration issue” as evidence for challenges the field has yet to overcome.

In regions of the world emerging from civil war and other violent conflicts, restorative justice has been incorporated into the practice of “transitional justice,” which applies the principles of being accountable for harms done and seeking to heal them. Transitional justice underpins the work of “truth and reconciliation commissions,” such as the one in South Africa, and grassroots community-reparative initiatives, such as Fambul Tok in Sierra Leone.

Restorative justice theories have been transcribed into education, architecture and many other disciplines. Some are also calling it a way of life. When people would tell him this, Zehr was confused at first. “Then I realized, it’s a reminder of some really basic values, like the fact that we are related to each other, and we have obligations or responsibilities. . . very fundamental things that some of us get through our religious tradition, and other people don’t.”

One dorm in Alabama’s W.C. Holman Correctional Facility holds 200 inmates sentenced to life terms who have committed to lifestyles of restorative justice within prison. “They have tried to translate Changing Lenses into restorative living,” says Zehr. “I hadn’t imagined it would be taken into all these different realms.”

In all of his writings over the last 20 years, Zehr makes it clear that the concepts of restorative justice are deeply embedded in most cultures of the world, especially those of indigenous peoples. He didn’t invent the concepts, he says. On the contrary, he has borrowed heavily from age-old traditions.

In the Little Book of Restorative Justice, he writes:

The river [of restorative justice] is also being fed by a variety of indigenous traditions and current adaptations which draw upon those traditions: Family Group Conferences adapted from Maori traditions in New Zealand, for example, sentencing circles from aboriginal communities in the Canadian north, Navajo Peacemaking Courts, African customary law, punchyat in Indo-Pakistani culture or jirgah in Pakistani-Afghan culture.

The field of mediation and conflict resolution feeds into that river as do the victims rights movements and alternatives to prison movements of the past decades. A variety of religious traditions flow into this river.

On capital punishment

Zehr is opposed to capital punishment. The title of an article published in Sojourners (April 2007) sums up his view: “Capital punishment is about vengeance, not justice.” Pointing to Canada, where the murder rate dropped after the death penalty was abolished, Zehr writes: “The death penalty mirrors the violence that it aims to reduce, reinforcing the idea that people should get what they deserve – suffering for suffering. Rather than undermining a tit-for-tat worldview – as Jesus tried to do – it confirms it. Rather than slowing the cycle, it feeds it.”

Despite the abundant praise for restorative justice, Zehr does not present as a know-it-all: “I’d rather you be a skeptic than true believer.… I want people to have a mixture of criticism and advocacy for it.” Writing and editing Critical Issues in Restorative Justice with Barb Toews was an effort to encourage that even-handedness. “We got practitioners to write about things that are going wrong, could go wrong, because they need to be aware of those.”

Moving forward, Zehr identifies a lack of infrastructure as the primary problem the field faces today. “We don’t have a good map of what restorative justice is being done in this country or the world. In fact, the infrastructure for restorative justice in this country is very weak right now; there’s no clear organization that really meets the needs of practitioners.”

Building that infrastructure is one goal of the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice, founded in 2012 by Zehr and a former student of his, Carl Stauffer ’85, MA ’02, who is now a professor and an expert in his own right, with 16 years of conflict-transformation experience in Africa. Zehr hopes the Institute will function as an extension of the role he has tried to play – that of facilitating and growing a network of restorative justice practitioners.

In 2013, Zehr began stepping away from leadership roles and from teaching. At age 70, he thinks it’s definitively time for him to retire and make space for other people to take the reins and run with restorative justice.

“Part of what’s really satisfied me over these last 18 years [at CJP] has been mentoring people and seeing them go out and do wonderful things I never imagined.” He also enjoys making connections for people in the field and helping them collaborate.

“When I was traveling I kept running into lawyers who were trying to do restorative justice, and they were all by themselves. A number of years ago I invited these lawyers to come together, to know each other and brainstorm. They liked it so much they keep doing it!” Similar groups have grown around CJP alumni and college staff dealing with sexual misconduct cases.

“That [connecting people] is my part of the Zehr Institute,” he says. “That’s the part I’ll probably put the most energy into.”

As a photographer

Zehr will continue doing photography – which he says has helped him balance the verbal and visual sides of the brain, enabling more effective communication. Some of his personal artworks are in themselves justice projects, such as three portrait series – of prison lifers, the children of incarcerated convicts, and victims of violent crime.

As Zehr moves into retirement, the subjects and stillness of his art do, as well. His most recent project, at Harrisonburg’s Spitzer Art Center in the early summer, paired photographs of his body and others’ hands alongside shots of dried leaves which evoked a similar form, line or texture.

“The process, and the visible signs, of aging are often viewed negatively,” says his website. “This portfolio is part of a larger project intended to explore the beauty, the positives, inherent in aging. Autumn leaves, with their visual marks of time and decay, have a kind of beauty, and so do the human body and spirit.”

This inclusion of the grit and wrinkles of aging, this insistence on documenting rather than looking away, show that Zehr has not changed his modus operandi over the decades – from field work to writing to teaching to photography. He believes in the beauty and vitality of honest storytelling.