Is there justice in restorative?

Following the recent 2nd Annual Conference of Restorative Justice Practices International I had the privilege of spending several days on Salt Spring Island off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia, with three experienced restorative justice practitioners who are former students of mine – Catherine Bargen, Aaron Lyons and Matthew Hartman.  Our conversations were wide-ranging while kayaking, hiking and hanging out.

Catherine Bargen, a long-time practitioner and visionary thinker, raised an important issue that deserves more discussion.  The rest of this entry is in her words, recorded and edited with her permission.

When I learned about restorative justice I felt that it applied to all of life and shouldn’t just be about criminal justice.  I’ve made a career of thinking outside the criminal justice box – for example, restorative justice in schools – and I continue to think the work being done in this field is very important.

More recently I became aware that there are all these other movements in restorative justice.  In fact, the voices seem to be most vibrant outside of criminal justice, like in schools; even environmental conservation officers and all kinds of groups like dispute resolution centers are really grabbing hold.  But they are saying,  “We’re not in the justice system, so let’s call it restorative practices and apply what we’ve learned from restorative justice to a new context.”

Restorative justice provides a gateway for people to look at the world through a new lens that goes far beyond criminal justice:  it applies to everyday life as we negotiate our social relationships.  We need to do it in all of life.  So in our enthusiasm – myself included – we have kept the word restorative and put it in front of much of the good work we are doing that involves people, repair and relationship building.

Suddenly I’ve had to step back and ask, “Why are we hanging on to the word ‘restorative’ and not the word ‘justice?‘  Is it important to keep the term restorative justice?  When we use the word restorative without the word justice, are we still talking about the same thing?”

I think that when many of us were introduced to restorative justice, we fell in love with the values and the amazing transformations we saw happening.  We then say, “Wow, this restorative justice is really onto something. There in action are the values I want to see in life.”

But if we attach the word restorative to all the good relationship-based work we are doing, if we start saying it’s about restorative “practices” and restorative “action,” I’m nervous  that we’re going to lose an important piece of what the movement could accomplish – which is focusing on justice issues.

Instead we’ll be taking these principles and doing great work but it may not have much to do with justice anymore.  Or we’ll be at risk of distilling restorative justice down to practices like victim offender mediation or circles; we’ll stop having a dialogue around “what is justice” and only discuss “what is restorative.”

It may be that it is easier to focus on restorative because it’s the nice value stuff but it’s harder to focus on justice because that may start to involve power issues.  And it might get personal:   where do we personally hold power and privilege, and how does justice and injustice show up in our own lives?  That’s harder to confront than, “How am I being restorative?”

If justice is about bringing fairness and right relationships into being, it often means that we have to give things up.  We have to give up privilege to bring justice into situations.  Many of us leading the restorative justice movement are privileged.  What about our own place in all this?  Where might we be ignoring the justice issues in our own lives?

I’m not accusing anyone or putting myself out of this.  It’s just that I don’t see that conversation happening very often anymore:   How am I living justly?  Where am I contributing to injustice in the way I treat people I’m around, in the systems I’m in?  In my relationship to the earth?  Those are all justice questions and I don’t see many of us asking these questions under a “restorative” as opposed to a “restorative justice” framework.

More questions need to be asked about how is it that we’re hanging onto the restorative language and not the justice language. I want to see people asking questions about what the justice piece is in all this – I’d like to see this question come back to the forefront of the movement.  Are we parting ways with the justice aspect?  How can we keep the justice aspect alive?

I don’t want to give the wrong impression.  I think people should continue to do the good work they are drawn to do, AND we need a serious discussion on what is restorative, what is justice,and  where we are going.  It’s time to check in with the vision.  The vision is widening and going in many directions—there are lots of good things about that, but let’s be clear about the implications and explore the possible consequences.

Below is Catherine’s choice of portrait from Salt Spring Island:

This is Catherine's choice of portrait from Salt Spring Island

11 comments on “Is there justice in restorative?”

  1. Judah Oudshoorn says:

    I really appreciate this post! I sometimes consider “justice” to be the noun…this is what we do…and “restorative” to be the adjective…this is how we do.

    I’m slowly coming on board with the idea that restorative justice is a way of life, rather than just an intervention for dealing with harm/conflict. If it is a way of life, I think it is about owning who we are, that is, taking responsibility for how we behave and carry ourselves in our relationships, which, to me, is about justice, right relationships, fairness, etc.

    Thanks, Catherine, for these thoughts. Very powerful.


  2. Judah Oudshoorn says:

    oh…and i wish i could have joined you guys for kayaking and all that outdoorsy stuff. and hanging out and stuff 🙂

    all the best to all of you!

  3. Alan Edwards says:

    Great thoughts, Catherine! Thanks for raising difficult ideas, and also for calling for a raising of the bar in RJ discourse.

    I’m struck at the rarity of difficult issues that surface at RJ conferences and gatherings. The level of (what looks to me like) self-satisfaction and self-congratulation at RJ/RP events tend to be frightfully high and this seems to mute, or at least move off to the margins, voices that invite rigorous self-examination about our work in RJ.

    And maybe I’m not holding myself fully responsible for my own actions here. Maybe I’m afraid that my raising serious concerns at RJ conferences might be seen as pissing in the waters of the tributary streams, so to speak. Perhaps more honestly, I’m afraid of finding out how alone I am in my concerns.

    With respect to your observations about RJ’s progressive morphing into RP, I share your concerns. The influence of RJ values in other areas outside of criminal justice issues surely has a lot of benefits. And, at the same time as there is this amazing broadening of restorative work, I don’t see a concommitant deepening of analysis, reflection, self-criticism, etc. that comes even close to keeping up with the pace of the broadening. For example, there are lots of great written contributions to the body of RJ thought, yet they seem to go unread by so many of us practitioners, both within RJ and possibly in RP as well. I’ve started wondering if there might be a strand of anti-intellectualism in the broader ‘restorative’ movement – that somehow issues of restoration, justice, healing, accountability, inclusion, etc. are simple issues not in need of fretting over too much. I’ve spoken with many experienced RJ practitioners over the years who have read maybe one book about RJ, and who have never bothered to access any RJ essays. Not that reading about RJ is the only way to wrestle with the many difficult issues that arise in our work, but it is one of the easier ways.

    I’m all for a broadening of restorative work, but only when there is an equitable commitment to deepening our understanding of ‘the work’ and our place in it. I honestly fear that restorative justice (and possibly many of the practices that flow from it) will drown in the kiddie pool, that we will eventually be overcome by our shallow understanding of the daunting issues that are the substance of our work.

    Thanks again, Catherine. And thanks also to Howard for making space for this sharing of ideas!


  4. Alana Abramson says:

    Thank you, Catherine, for these reflections. Since the conference I have been thinking very deeply about these questions and have great energy to contribute to continuing the dialogue.

  5. Jiel says:

    I have acquired much info because of this Conference. Well generally, i have been motivated recharged and inspired. Update us more..

  6. I find it interesting that the language is shifting towards emphasising the restorative aspect. When I consider the name of RJ and what, if any, changes need to be made to it to reflect more honestly and clearly what we do (or aught to be doing) I tend to lose the word restorative first. I prefer, right now, the term emergent (ala emergentism – see both scientific and philosophical meanings) justice, which for me reflects the fact that we cannot know what justice will look like in any given context until we have moved through it and seen what comes out of the complex mix of stories, resources, capacities, relationships and opportunities that emerge. It is less about the a specific outcome than it is about the process by which we seek to nurture an emergence of justice. So, I guess I am agreeing with Catherine that we need to focus more on the work of justice than we do of restoration, if we must choose between them at all.

    I am somewhat concerned too with the continued disconnect that I see when we say our work towards responding to harm in a variety of contexts is not about justice work unless some sort of crime can be named. I wish we could let go of the need for state sanctioned definitions and structures for justice and equip ourselves to do justice in all aspects of our lives. This isn’t to say there is no role for state definitions and structures, I am just finding that as they are currently expressed, they are largely irrelevent to the search for justice in the vast majority of harms we experience in life.

    re: Allan’s concern of the wider adoption of RJ occuring without an indepth wrestling with the difficulties of implimenting a complex and completely other way of living into a context which will not bend easily to this new way, I too am concerned.

    I am wondering if those of us who approach this work because we are fundamentally ‘out of the box’ thinkers and doers who struggle to see ourselves belonging to anything static, normative or unchallenging, are struggling with the arrival and growing influence of ‘in the box’ thinkers that inevitably show up in any maturing movement. Can we be comfortable in a movement that is maturing and taking on an identity that is not what we had envisioned. Do we need to talk about this question? I know that I felt uncomfortable at the RPI event, and through my increasing concern for the role of victims in RJ, beginning to feel more and more that RJ may not be the place where the victim voice will be able to grow and be empowered. This troubles me, and suggests that a stronger victim voice will need to be developed outside of RJ so that it can speak with its own strength and power to RJ (amongst others) to demand/seek greater growth and development.

    Thanks Howard for bringing this conversation up here.

  7. Howard, Catherine’s reflections pushed me to complete some thinking that started for me at the 2nd National Conference on Restorative Justice that took place about the same time as the one you describe.

    Your readers can check out where that took me in We Live in A Relational and Moral Universe on our blog at

  8. jeff from says:

    Cath and How,

    I believe that the word Justice is a huge struggle. It is incredibly vague, yet has so many connotations that we are afraid of it. I would agree with James L. above that “restorative” is the more challenging word for me. Restoration is a verb that insinuates a return to a former state of being. The word justice does not imply such lofty goals, it actually gives us a more grounded feeling for reparations and healing.

    We do us restorative unhitched in our practices too much and that could create great misunderstanding if we use it too much in our lives. If someone asked me how my relationship was with my partner, I would much rather say “we are in a just relationship” than “we are in a restorative relationship” (yuck, what is wrong with you). Isn’t that what we are working towards, how to develop just relationships. There might have to be the reparation of relationship, but not the impossible restoration of those relationships.

    My suggestion is that we have Restorative Justice and Restorative Justice Practices. I was feeling humorous when typing this response, so I hope it is taken as such. I hope all is well with you. shalom/salaam, jef

  9. Federico Reggio says:

    Hello Howard. I find that your thoughts (as usual!) reach the heart of a very important issue, and I fully agree with the question you outlined.
    My impression is that the tendency of ‘avoiding’ the question about justice is the outcome of the highly situational (and relativistic) attitude that pervades the western cultural/ethical milieu. Justice recalls an absolute value, obliges to distinguish rights from wrongs, to seek the truth about arguments and facts. And.. yes, finally justice recalls the need of giving one’s own: in my view, such a claim can be understood also in restorative terms: ‘someone’s own’, in facts, firstly implies that each person must be recognised with her own, unalienable dignity, and therefore must be treated with fairness, equity and as a dialogical and responsible being; secondly it implies that due reparation of the harm must be provided/received.
    All these concepts, though, easily sound too universalistic, or just too complex, to fit with the post-modern ‘fashion’, so it would immediately sound too ‘absolutistic’ to discuss about them.
    One of Postmodernity’s merits is surely the warning that it expressed, showing that our knowledge is structurally limited and that complexity just cannot be avoided; sadly it also transformed complexity into a kind of ‘excuse’ for abandoning the research for common values and, more generally, for contents able to transcend pure situationality/contextuality.
    Here, in my opinion, one of the hardest challenges of our times emerges: facing complexity within (and not without!) an unendless and dialogical research for justice, truth, common values; being counscious of our limitedness, without making it an ‘easy way out’ from the big questions.
    These days I am reading Bededikt XVI’s last encyclical letter, Charity in Truth, which is a truly challenging reading: it is, in facts, strange, to see how, in a letter which is meant to ‘update’ the Church’s social doctrine (but that does not extend only to Catholics, since it generally deals with social justice) truth and the search for truth have been constantly named. According to Benedikt, there is a deep relationship between charity and truth, so that the research for one implies the research for the other (God, in facts, is both Logos and Love, and these dimensions harmonically coexist in God).
    Personally, I see lots of commonalities between Benedikt’s considerations about social equity and your argument about ‘restorative’ and ‘justice’: so.. I just wonder whether the tendency of minimizing the importance of the ‘justice element’ can be connected to the notorious ‘disillusion and disappointment for the truth’ that affects the contemporary culture.. a disappointment which is, honestly, quite disappointing.

  10. I am somewhat concerned too with the continued disconnect that I see when we say our work towards responding to harm in a variety of contexts is not about justice work unless some sort of crime can be named.

  11. Jonny says:

    I think it is about owning who we are, that is, taking responsibility for how we behave and carry ourselves in our relationships, which, to me, is about justice, right relationships, fairness, etc.

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