Taking stock of the restorative justice field

In their book Restorative Justice Dialogue:  An Essential Guide for Research and Practice, Mark Umbreit and Marilyn Amour offer the equivalent of a state-of-the-union address for the restorative justice movement: a comprehensive overview and a stock-taking of the field as it has developed, as it currently exists, and what lies ahead.  The timing is excellent.

Thirty years ago restorative justice consisted of a handful of victim-offender dialogue programs in North America and Europe handling primarily property offenses.  In 1980, the field did not yet have its name.  Today, in 2010, restorative approaches have expanded exponentially, with applications on every continent not only in criminal justice (including crimes of severe violence) but also in schools, the workplace and in societal-level interventions after mass violence.

In the 1980s when I was writing my book Changing Lenses:  A New Focus for Crime and Justice, which outlined the concept of and rationale for restorative justice, I expected it to be the object of derision.  Instead, today restorative justice is in the mainstream of justice discourse.

Throughout the 1980s, and even much of the 90s, I knew many of the practitioners and advocates of restorative justice; I could identify what and where things were happening. I could provide a decent overview of the field and the issues it faced. That is no longer true.  Although I attribute this inability in part to the reduced memory that comes with age, I console myself with the realization that it is almost impossible for one person to track the numerous applications and programs that exist, and the hundreds of practitioners and academics involved.   Recently, for example, I participated in the annual conference of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences that now has a restorative justice section and found dozens of academics engaged with it, many of whom I didn’t know.

The global explosion of restorative justice is partly why this book is so important:  it is the most comprehensive overview of the field available and is written in a highly accessible style.  While the authors are restorative justice advocates, practitioners, and researchers, they are self-critical of the field, indicating areas of challenge and concern as well as success.  The chapters include anecdotes that help the applications come alive, but their descriptions, analyses and research of these approaches are not merely anecdotal.  They wrestle with some difficult but highly relevant areas including the role of spirituality, the qualities of good facilitation, dynamics around cultural and power, and, toward the end, explore newer and “frontier’ areas of application.

In addition to the comprehensive overview of practices and practice issues, I especially appreciate the authors’ attention to issues around values and principles.  I have long warned that restorative justice, like all change efforts, is likely to go astray.  All social interventions have unintended consequences, no matter how good our intentions.  Change efforts are often first ignored, then resisted, then likely to be co-opted.  Indeed, there are ample signs of the latter already in the field.   An ongoing dialogue about principles and values, an openness to evaluation and feedback and a self-reflective stance are crucial to help offset this tendency.

Umbreit and Amour offer Restorative Justice Dialogue: An Essential Guide for Research and Practice as an example of, as well as a contribution to, the commitment to practice what we preach – to live up to the values and vision of a justice that restores rather than destroys.

Restorative Justice Dialogue was just released by Springer Publishing Company, New York.  This blog entry is the forward that I contributed to the book.