Howard Zehr reflects on the writing of ‘Changing Lenses’ and the future of restorative justice

Republished from 2015.

Looking back 25+ years to when he was writing his seminal work, Changing Lenses, Dr. Howard Zehr was not attempting to change the dominant paradigm of the criminal justice system. He was simply trying to provoke us to re-examine our assumptions and start a dialogue on what he saw as a retributive criminal justice system, one that cared little about the victim or the offender’s needs, focusing mostly on punishing the offender.

In the new preface to the 25th Anniversary printing of Changing Lenses, to be published in June of 2015, Dr. Zehr says he wanted to write “a book that would encourage us to identify and rethink some of the assumptions we rarely examine and that would help us begin to dream of other possibilities.” His humility is evident in this simple statement and in the surprise that he still feels today when people tell him how much Changing Lenses and restorative justice have changed their lives.

InterviewerHow do you feel knowing that Changing Lenses has sold over 26,000 copies in seven languages?

Howard Zehr: That’s hard to answer. Pleasantly surprised? Honored that the book has had that kind of impact and value. I still want it to be a provocative essay rather than something definitive. I really value people taking on these concepts and taking them to places I haven’t imagined.

InterviewerWhat do you mean by “places I haven’t imagined”?

HZ: One example is its use in the architectural realm. Barb Toews and Deanna van Buren are using restorative justice principles in the design of buildings, classrooms, and overall use of space. Another would be the honor dorm in the W.C. Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama, where a group of lifers has committed to using restorative justice principles as the way they live their lives in prison.

InterviewerWhere do you see the field of Restorative Justice going in the next decade?

HZ: I see it clearly expanding in the criminal justice system and other arenas such as architecture, education, and community problem-solving. The term itself has become very popular. I expect that as with most popular ideas, it will continue to be co-opted and misused. But a strong educational and institutional structure can cut down on some of this. It has the potential to really impact both the traditional criminal justice systems and many other arenas.

HZ: Internationally, I see many countries attempting to institutionalize restorative justice. In the UK and Germany, “restorative justice” is institutionalized in their criminal justice systems, but not as fully as I would like to see. The same is true in Belgium, where they are even attempting to use restorative justice techniques for severe crimes. And in New Zealand, the entire youth justice system utilizes a restorative justice framework as their default method of youth justice. The court system is seen as the back-up if people will not admit responsibility, but restorative justice is definitely the main push, even for the most heinous and difficult crimes. This is definitely a worldwide movement.

InterviewerWhat other areas do you see it being used in, in the future?

HZ: Several. Post-violence community rebuilding. Transitional justice (not just limited to Truth and Reconciliation Commissions). It is definitely making new inroads in schools and with youth crime. There has been a lot of interest both from universities and the K-12 school system in utilizing a restorative justice approach to rule-breaking, not only for minor offenses, but for major ones as well. Using restorative justice in colleges and schools is important. Half of education is the curriculum. But the other half is learning to live together. Using a criminal justice punishment approach is not teaching people to live together. Restorative justice would teach people how to live together and deal with problems and situations without reverting to “punishment”.

InterviewerHow can you use restorative justice in education for more major violations such as sexual misconduct?

HZ: There is actually an online discussion group talking about this very topic. It is the big question in the field of restorative justice in education. The status quo is hard to break. There is a model code of university conduct/discipline that has been in place for a long time. It is difficult to get those in charge to see that restorative justice measures can help. And legality issues put a lot of pressure on universities to follow existing codes for fear of being sued. In addition, the federal government is tightening rules so that institutions will take sexual misconduct more seriously than they have in the past. But what this does is move the problem into the criminal justice system, which actually narrows options, even for survivors. And both the victims and the prosecutors lose control of the possible outcomes.

InterviewerSo how do we change the status quo belief in punishment as a solution? How do we get the field of criminal justice to evolve beyond retribution?

HZ: One place to start is law schools. We need to change the lawyer’s self-image and make them believe in a responsibility to the community and the victim, not just to their client. Currently many law schools emphasize the lawyer as zealous advocate, whose only goal is to protect their clients. Lawyers need to be problem solvers and healers for the larger situation that caused the violence or crime. We need to train lawyers to create conflict maps for their clients showing both retributive and restorative solutions and have them help their clients to understand why the restorative, non-adversarial option may be the best to use.

InterviewerWhat do you see as the primary mission of the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice at Eastern Mennonite University? And how should that mission be accomplished?

HZ: At CJP we are fortunate to have an identity in many circles as a “neutral insider,” with the creation of a safe space for people on all sides of a conflict to come together and talk about ways to transform the conflict. I see the Zehr Institute as an umbrella for these types of activities. The tagline of the Institute is “Cultivating restorative justice conversations, connections and learning.” A lot of what I have done over the years is getting people together to brainstorm ideas and create networks. I see the Zehr Institute as a continuation of that – a convening space both in person and over the internet.

HZ: In addition, I see the Institute as a resource and support organization for the field of restorative justice. Currently there is poor infrastructure for restorative justice in the US and we are working against a retributive justice system that is deeply ingrained both politically and organizationally. There are no clear places of training for restorative justice. I want us to look at the gaps in structure and address what other people are not doing.

InterviewerLast question. You are a semi-professional photographer. How have you incorporated your love of photography into your work over the years?

HZ: I believe we need to tap both sides of our brain – the verbal and the visual. Good communication requires this balance. Photography has helped me gain this balance and provide effective communication. In addition, my personal projects over the years have melded photography and justice work, often providing visibility and a voice to people who don’t normally get that voice publicly – lifers in prison, victims of violent crime, and children whose parents are imprisoned are just some of the photography projects I have done. I feel my work has helped to bridge the public and the hidden people so that we can have discussions, not dialogues based on stereotypes.

To learn more about the work of the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice, click here.

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