Is restorative justice a compass without a needle?

The field of restorative justice has been characterized by on-going discussions about how to define the term.  Some have argued that we should avoid definitions because of the rigidity they bring.  Others have claimed that ambiguity and uncertainty have led to confusion and bad practice.

Many have advised that we drop the term “justice” entirely. In a school context, for example, the “justice” word is often replaced by terms such as “practices” or “disciplines.”   Catherine Bargen, in her earlier guest blog, questions the wisdom of that, and her concerns are affirmed and expanded upon in an important new contribution by Dorothy Vaandering. (“A faithful compass:  rethinking the term restorative justice to find clarity.” Contemporary Justice Review, Vol 14, No. 3, Sept 2011, 307-328).

Vaandering’s research and experiences are in the realm of education, but she speaks to the field as a whole, warning that although it has offered a compass, the compass has been lacking a needle.

Overall, she worries that ambiguity about the meaning of the term has led to the field being discredited and also encouraged bad practice.  The fact that practice has moved ahead of theory from the beginning has been another source of confusion.  In addition, when the term “justice” is used, an over-emphasis on criminal justice models and applications has led to an undue focus on rights and fairness that has pulled the field off-course.

This is especially true in the educational context, where the word “justice” is often foreign and strengthens the tendency to see restorative approaches as add-ons to disciplinary processes that are basically judicial.  Also, a restorative “discipline” focus limits application to behavioral management, yet educators’ overall mandate is educational, not behavioral.

Vaandering helpfully revisits Gavrielides’ 5 fault lines, arguing that the lack of a clear understanding of both “justice” and “restorative” contributes to these misunderstandings and divisions.

1.  RJ as new paradigm or RJ as pragmatic, parallel approach

2. RJ as process vs RJ as outcome

3. RJ as mediation (only immediate stakeholders) or RJ as conferencing (involving a larger definition of stateholders)

4. RJ as coercive vs RJ as voluntary

5. RJ principles as flexible or RJ principles as inflexible.

The core of her exploration, Vaandering notes, are these questions:  What is justice?  What is being restored?  How can the term justice be used within various fields without eliciting connotations of crime (including its objectifying tendencies)?

The justice component of restorative justice must not be lost, Vaandering argues, and a clear understanding of the meaning of “justice” will not only clarify the “restorative” part but will  help address these fault lines.

What is really at stake, she concludes, is what it means to be human.  The compass is missing a needle.  That can be provided by a broader understanding of justice, one that explicitly acknowledges our humanity and what that implies.

In the next I entry I will summarize her proposal.

(Theo Gavrielides’ helpful study is available as a free pdf from this site.)



6 comments on “Is restorative justice a compass without a needle?”

  1. Jack Payden-Travers says:

    One of the wonderful things about RJ is that it is flexible and adaptable and has yet to be enshrined in a fixed code or statute from which the authorities won’t allow deviation. It is a process in creation.

  2. Mark Tobin says:

    It seems to me that RJ is still an evolving and diverse discipline. Various programs in different professional settings can all legitimately claim to be restorative. Maybe the time has come for Howard Zehr, Dorothy Vaandering and others in the wellspring of RJ to help the profession to further refine some of its objectives consistent with the strategic direction and philosophy of RJ. Defining best practices in various specialities, exploring credentialing for RJ professionals (as is done in New Zealand), and continuing scholarship in the academy all help in keeping RJ’s bearings.

    I look forward to future developments in the field. And I know this blog and others will lead the discussion.

  3. Ted Lewis says:

    Thanks, Howard, for sustaining this perrenial discussion on language and terms. One thing I find helpful in my trainings is to draw a pyramid, and split it into 4 horizontal layers. The top layer is Restorative Justice (in the original sense of addressing criminal activity), the second layer is Restorative Practices (involving the broadening of RJ into school settings), the third layer is Restorative Services (now being applied to workplace and other realms of conflict resolution), and the bottom layer is Restorative Life-Skills (applicable to all of us in our daily inter-personal relationships). I note that these layers get larger as they go down, showing how they are applicable to greater numbers as you move toward your own life situations. I also note how there’s a time progression (from the ’80’s, 90’s, 00’s) that fits with the expansion of RJ, and in this light, the current decade we are in will explore new models for integrating restorative principles into common life for us all.

    Speaking for myself, if I can have the presence of mind to apply restorative wisdom in my interactions with my family, I can do it anywhere. Can I live justly with my wife and daughters? Which is to say, can I have relational rightness and integrity with them? How about with my mother’s new husband? This is important, because if families get it right, (or better, make things right), then you can see the ultimate prevention plan for reducing problems back up through the other layers: workplace/community, schools and crime.

    Of course, a key question remains as to the common denominators that thread through all 4 layers, and that gets back to the blog topic at hand. Certainly the theme of relational restoration is central to all four layers, enlivened by what I call the three RJ building blocks of Ownership, Empathy and Reparation. These three, in unrushed sequence, provide the vital orientation to TIME that restorative practitioners are keenly aware of. If there is a needle to be found, I suspect that a good RJ needle is defined by its capacity to point people away from a weighted past and to a lighter future. Maybe the real question is “What is our true North?” I’ll look forward to the next entry in this important discussion.

    Ted Lewis, Barron County, WI

  4. Vickie Shoap says:

    Thanks Howard for continuing to frame the conversation around thoughtful questions. I was relieved to read this post. This discussion is very relevant for me after moving from RJ work in the criminal justice system to developing an RJ initiative in a large school system. I am struggling with apprehension about the broad terminology and application of restorative practices. Is there a need for comprehensive training and understanding of victim impact issues and offender needs when restorative practices including circles and conferences are viewed and promoted as preventative measures? What happens to the potential of the restorative justice conference process where serious wrongdoing has created needs and obligations and trauma when practitioners are focused on promoting restorative measures that seem less difficult for others to accept? Will the justice aspects of restorative justice be marginalized or seen as too risky? Will the transforming power of the formal process be diminished in our efforts to move towards a more restorative school, prison, workplace or community? For me at least the work remains at the heart of social ‘justice’, giving people a voice in the process of justice and providing a way back for offenders. Tour any juvenile detention center or prison in this country and it’s pretty clear that there is a need for formal restorative justice processes and for restorative practices that focus on prevention. Language is powerful but should we be so afraid to use terms like victim or justice that we push restorative justice into the misty moors where it seems too obscure or too far on the periphery?

  5. If RJ is a “return to the teachings” approach to dealing with wrongdoing, perhaps the only place to get the “needle” is from those teachings. If that’s true, though, the needle will vary from tradition to tradition/environment to environment.

    Part of what seems to animate these perennial discussions on language, terms, & practice, is the fact that RJ has become common goods to so many different tradition-laden practices (criminal justice, school systems, et al), all of which are going to have very different things to say about what constitutes “justice,” or even if that’s a good/right word, or if “restorative” is inadequate in certain places/times, etc.

    Part of what may help illuminate this contention is an intellectual anthropology on early stages of RJ, as well as each of the tradition-laden practices that have picked up and taken RJ into new directions. Such attention to the diversity of traditions may help explain some of the constant hand-wringing that goes on around these questions, and why Howard seems to consistently want theorists to wrestle with them, if we are indeed “returning to the teachings”…

  6. Neil Horsburgh says:

    For Spanish speakers:
    there is currently a conference titled 1 CONGRESO INTERNACIONAL VIRTUAL taking place in Mexico, focusing on practices of restorative justice with young people.

    Participants are from Mexico and Colombia.
    Presentations are accesible on the internet.

    For access to info try this web address –

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