Restorative or transformative justice?

Is restorative justice sufficiently transformative?  Should the term be “transformative” rather than “restorative” justice?  Are they different phenomena or are they one and the same?

This debate has been ongoing since the origin of the field.  When trying to decide on a term in the 1980s, I considered the word transformative but rejected it as too ephemeral to communicate with real-world practitioners. But the term restorative, with its backward-looking connotations, has certainly had its limits.

Ruth Morris raised this issue frequently.  She argued that both in concept and practice, restorative justice has been too limited.  Bonnie Price Lofton, in her contribution to Critical  Issues in Restorative Justice, made this argument as well.  Restorative justice may be too backward-looking, seeking to restore something that is unattainable, undesirable or never existed. Like the criminal justice system itself, it may focus too narrowly on putting a band-aid on interpersonal relationships while neglecting underlying causes such as structural injustices.

Others have argued that restorative justice does indeed seek to transform unhealthy relationships and does pave the way for a larger social transformation.

The best piece I’ve seen that explores the relationship between these two terms is by M. Kay Harris in her chapter entitled “Transformative Justice:  the transformation of restorative justice” in The Handbook of Restorative Justice edited by Dennis Sullivan and Larry Tift.  Harris outlines four different perspectives that have been advocated in this debate:

  1. Restorative justice and transformative are two quite different perspectives.
  2. Restorative  process aims at personal and and interpersonal transformation and can open spaces for social transformation.
  3. Restorative justice falls on a continuum between retributive and transformative justice.
  4. RJ and TJ are really the same things, properly understood.  Restorative and transformative justice both aim at interpersonal as well as larger social transformation.

Personally, I would hope that #4 is true – that they really are the same thing – but I also know that in practice, this often is not the case.  Thus positions 2-3 have validity. My own interest is not in staking out a position but rather in urging the field to be as transformative as possible.  I am encouraged by the numerous examples people have shared with me of personal and interpersonal transformation through restorative justice.  And, while restorative justice often seems to create awareness of larger social issues, unfortunately I hear fewer stories of true social transformation.

While I am least comfortable with position No. 1 – that they are quite different – I do find it useful to use this perspective for pedagogical purposes.  As a class or training exercise, it is often enlightening to provide a case study, then divide participants into three groups.  Each group is assigned to approach the case using one of the following three perspectives:

I. Retributive Approach

The incident is a violation of the policies, defined by rule breaking.  Resolution involves looking at the incident, determining blame, and administering the consequences.

  • What rule has been broken?
  • Who is to blame?
  • What punishment do they deserve?

II. Restorative Approach

The incident is a violation of people and relationships.  It creates obligations to make things right.  Resolution involves looking at the harm caused by the incident:  harm to the person(s) who were victimized, harm to the instigator/aggressor(s), and harm to the larger community and asks “How can this harm be repaired?”

  • Who has been hurt & what are their needs?
  • Who is obligated to address these needs?
  • Who has a “stake” in this situation & what is the process to involve them in making things right and preventing future occurrences?

III. Transformative Approach

The incident may have occurred as a result, in part, of unhealthy relationships and social systems.  It creates obligations to build new or better relationships. This must happen not only at an individual level but at the level of social structures and institutional policies.  Resolution involves changing wider social systems in ways that help to prevent the occurrence and re-occurrence of harmful incidents.

  • What social circumstances promoted the harmful behavior?
  • What structural similarities exist between this incident and others like it?
  • What measures could prevent future occurrences?

Usually the first group, “retributive justice,” gets done first.  The transformative group is often last.  This in itself leads to interesting discussions.

This exercise, which is adapted from a series of exercises designed by CJP graduate Dave Dyck, somewhat arbitrarily differentiates between the three perspectives but it can lead to interesting conversations about the relationships between them.

9 comments on “Restorative or transformative justice?”

  1. Sarah Federman says:

    Thank you for this helpful post. My current work, on the role of the SNCF (French speed trains) in deporting the Jews in World War, considers these issues.

    I find both the restortative and transformative questions helpful. Regarding Transformative, we know that the German Occupation more than promoted the harmful behavior. The French have made an intellectual shift, at least at the philosophical level, that now if one follows a law that future generations regard as a crime against humanity, one is culpable. Now this could be tricky if humans decide slaughtering animals for food is a crime…then everyone would be guilty. Barring this philosophical shift, I am not sure what if anything is in place to prevent it from happening again except for shame.

    On the restortative level, the SNCF has paid renumerations for people deported, donated money to commemorative events and structures, etc.

    Again, the above is helping me sort through the issues more clearly.

  2. Tim Hedeen says:

    Thanks very much, Howard. I appreciate your thoughts on this distinction, as well as the care you bring to these discussions.

    I’m wondering if you might share an illustration of a case you might use to illustrate the distinctions among the three approaches. As I’m running through possibilities in my experience, I realize that you (and Dave) have likely arrived at a rich case study through trial-and-error.

    With warmest regards from Atlanta, –Tim

  3. Gerry Johnstone says:

    This is very interesting.
    There is a useful discussion of restorative/transformative justice in Andrew Woolford’s book The Politics of Restorative Justice: A Critical Introduction (Fernwood Publishing, 2009).

    With regard to the exercise, perhaps the groups assigned to the retributive approach would take longer if theywere presented with a more complex set of questions reflecting a richer version of retributive thinking. I think this would also make the exercise more balanced and help bring out more clearly what is distinctive and valuable about the restorative/transformative approaches. What i have in mind is somethng like the following:

    What wrongdoing has been committed and who is responsible for it?
    With regard to any particular wrongdoer, how culpable where they?
    What degree of ‘hard treatment’ does the wrongdoer deserve to undergo for what they have done?
    Who, if anyone, has the right to impose such ‘hard treatment’? Who, if anyone, is obliged to impose it?
    How can we justify the imposition of hard treatment on the wrongdoer?

  4. Mark Tobin says:

    I really appreciate the insights of Howard and others in this blog. I have learned a lot, with much, much more to learn.

    My two-cents:

    It seems to me that whether restorative justices is truly restorative or even transformative, rests with the mindsets of the participants, how they assume responsibility for their roles, and how they take the process and its outcome to heart.

    If any single participant cannot fully commit to getting past alienation, indifference, and lingering tendency toward recrimination, restorative practices cannot be restorative, much less transformative. It’s critical for all to accept their responsibility in order to make RJ work as it’s intended.

    Otherwise, sadly, society has no choice, but to rely on the retributive model, which can be transformative in its own right, and often not as intended.

  5. Like Howard, I see restorative justice and transformative justice as one and the same. They address the same problem but on different planes. Restorative justice and transformative justice seem to address social problems from the stand point of cause and effect. How can we effect the social/structural system cause that supports the negative result? Perhaps placing an emphasis on RJ principles and values is a place to begin.

  6. Caryn Saxon says:

    I am so grateful for this topic. I’ve lately been exploring texts critical of restorative justice in an effort to more deeply engage my own attraction to RJ, as well as my own doubts or concerns about the RJ processes and programs I take part in. One thing I continue to encounter within myself is my frustration with restorative practices that don’t acknowledge or attend to social, structural, and systemic causes of crime and harm. This distinction between restorative and transformative intentions eloquently clarifies for me not only the complexity of acknowledging the relationships inherent to crime and justice, but the layers of understanding with which we can engage and find meaning in them.

  7. Jason says:

    I think that restorative and transformative justice are basically the same idea. They both look at greater social problems and seek to solve them to prevent future occurences. However, in practice, this is not always the case. In many cases, transformative justice does not exist.

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