Restorative justice and system change

Ross London, in his recent book, Crime, Punishment and Criminal Justice – From Margins to Mainstream, argues that much of the identity crisis of the RJ field has been caused by the misguided notion of a “paradigm shift” popularized by my colleague Howard Zehr, one of the founding voices in the RJ movement, in his 1990 book, Changing Lenses.

According to London, the concept of paradigm shifts (used originally by Thomas Kuhn in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) is misleading when applied to the RJ field in that it assumes a totalizing transformation from one whole system to another entirely different system of operation.  Compared to the scientific revolution, for example, this would be like the shift in the scientific understanding that the earth is round, not flat, or that the sun does not rotate around the world, but just the opposite.

As a realist, London maintains that the current criminal justice system is so deeply entrenched and has developed over such a long time that it would be impossible to make a complete shift in the systematic nature and substance of this institution. On top of this, London insists that the RJ movement does not contain the necessary infrastructural brevity of thought or practice to provide an alternative paradigm that could replace the comprehensive influence of the modern criminal justice system.

Indeed, London would argue that this kind of total overhaul of the justice-industrial-complex should not even be our goal. He insists that RJ has made minimal progress in transforming the CJ system precisely because it has pitted itself against the system. According to London, in contrast to this posture of resistance, if RJ would abandon the use of paradigmatic language and instead strategically work from the inside-out it would be much more successful in transforming the justice system.

In summary London’s conviction is this: RJ would be considerably more influential if it would seek to be mainstreamed into the whole justice system and refocus its energy on shifting justice system values and priorities in the direction of restoration from the inside-out.

London’s argument has a great deal of appeal if one reduces RJ to a simple subset of justice values and practice skills that has the power to re-direct the internal trajectory of the current system. However, if you believe that RJ, actually or potentially, represents a comprehensive paradigm that could radically replace the current system, then London’s proposal of working from within is not acceptable. Social movement theory argues that critical mass transformative “tipping points” have historically occurred only when advocates of change on the inside and agents of provocation on the outside  have collaborated to reinforce the undergoing transformative changing of a system.

Borrowing from work in the natural sciences (quantum physics & chaos theory) some of us in the justice and peacebuilding field have integrated the language of Human Systems Dynamics (HSD) or Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) theory to help understand the phenomena of structural transformation. Human Systems Dynamics tell us that in order to impact a complex emerging system that seems to be intractable (like the criminal justice system), we need to think laterally and ask a different set of questions.   For example, how do we change the containers that hold the system in place? How do we change the differences in, and between, the various elemental components of the system? How do we change the forms and flows of exchange (reciprocities) between the relationships and structures that are currently occurring in and supportive of the system?

I am convinced that RJ as a social movement has the potential to move the current justice system into a process of monumental change. RJ as an ethical worldview, a corporate vision and as a practical strategy for national justice policy reform and practice has great potential to address all three points of change listed above.  It can provide alternative ways of doing and being that satisfy the requirements of true justice.


(Howard’s comments on Ross’ argument may be found in this earlier blog entry.)

Sources and references include the following:

Gladwell, M. (2000). The Tipping Point – How little Things can make a Big Difference.

Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Moyer, B. et al. (2001). Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements.

Ideas on HSD came from conversation with Dr. Glenda Eoyang, one of the founding voices in HSD. See this website for more resources.


7 comments on “Restorative justice and system change”

  1. Sarah Malotane Henkeman says:

    Professor Stauffer, I would have imagined that a change from the dispositional (psychological) definition of crime, to a more realistic interactionist (psychological/structural) definition of crime would be a place to start.

    The CJS is built around the processing of individual offenders. Unless there is a change to criminal law definitions of crime, there is no paradigm shift to speak of. Methods/systems follow definition and not the other way around.

    Restorative Justice cannot be the common sense solution within a limited and limiting environment – unless practitioners are in denial and filter out structural factors that interact with individual factors to produce crime.

  2. To be mindful of what field of application we are refering to is very usuful in RJ theory. I adventure to say that what London proposes make work within the CJS as a transitional period and is better understood under the Continuun that Howard Zehr apropriatelly has spoke about. London aproach may be moving towards being more restorative eventually, but is not fully restorative and will not be if it remain that way. RJ as a phylosophy of life with numerous applications for prevention, reintegration, democracy, etc., prevails as a paradign shift and wisely so because it represents a non-violent response to violence of any sort.

  3. Sarah,

    Thank you for your insightful comment. You are exactly right. Our current Euro-cetnric CJ system is built on the foundations of enlightenment individualism and our juris prudence is configured around scientific rational choice theories. Until we can overcome our obsession with abstract universal codification of individual deviant behavior, it will be hard to make a justice paradigm shift.

    The promise of RJ is its ability to embed justice in a socio-political context. RJ understands that injustice (harm) is ultimately about breached relationships – at the family, school, organization, community, nation and global levels. RJ holds together the individual and the collective by insisting that both entities are responsible for harms and that the origins of injustice are attached to both the person and societal structures that offend. RJ provides the possibility of repairing relationships and addressing structural transformation in order to satisfy justice.

    Thank you for your important comments, Charito. I have always maintained that one of the strongest arguments for RJ is that it is the only cohesive, nonviolent justice framework (flawed as it might be) that provides the necessary corrective to our current system that is predicated on state-sanctioned violence (retribution) and a punitive organizing factor.

  4. Gerry Johnstone says:

    I think there is a potentially very interesting conversation here. But, at the moment I find it very confusing. It seems to me that there are a number of quite different issues being rolled together, and none of them necessarily implies the others. My understanding (and I’m not at all sure I have this right) is as follows:
    First, there is the issue of Ross London’s critique of the strategy of promoting restorative justice as a new paradigm – a strategy which he claims has impaired the development of restorative justice theoretically and practically. There is a critique of London’s critique (but I’m not clear about what precisely the argument against London is).
    Second, there is the interesting claim (which I think needn’t be attached to a critique of Ross’s position) that a perspective called Human Systems Dynamics can benefit the development of restorative justice [this is new to me and it would be interesting to hear more about the perspective and how precisely it helps advance discussion of restorative justice].
    Third, there are assumptions /claims being made (in the responses) about how we characterise the ideological foundations of the existing criminal justice system (and here there are again a number of different ideas being rolled together: that it is founded on individualism, that it is retributive, that it is violent).
    Fourth, there are some claims being made about the right way in which we should see and handle crime (Again, I’m not clear about what is being proposed here – is this a debate about causes of crime, the allocation of responsibility for accounting for crime, or about how crime should be addressed at the level of social policy).
    I appreciate that this is a blog – and not an article – and that such conversations are necessarily less organised. But, assuming the purpose is to advance discussion of restorative justice, it would I think be very interesting and valuable – to have a more focussed discussion of one of these issues.

  5. Thank you Gerry for your comments. I appreciate hearing from you as I have read some of your publications in the past. Let me say upfront, this blog was intended to look at RJ and structural change. I will make a few responses to the questions your raise:

    1.) My critique of London is specifically aimed at his argument for “mainstreaming” RJ as the best way to bring about an internal change to the dominant CJ system (this is only one of many very important arguments that London makes in this book, so I am in no way insinuating that this is some kind of comprehensive critique). Essentially, this argument by London could be classified as the view of the ‘internal reformist’. I do not think this is adequate. I come to this point from a sociological perspective and particularly from a social movements / social change theory lens. In my opinion, the fact that we in the RJ field remain polarized in this divide between RJ as an alternative transformative paradigm and RJ as a reformist social practice is what has made us unable to see the tangible change we may desire. In other words, structural change happens through a ‘both/and’ approach – in this case, we need to see RJ as both transformative and reformative in relation to the dominant system.

    2.) In light of the above comments, my introduction of human systems dynamics (HSD) theory is not tangential in that if we are to break away from the proverbial ‘RJ as a social movement vs. RJ as a social service’ then we need to think creatively about how do systems change. HSD provides us with some hints. Once again, I am fully aware of the heated debates about the utility of drawing analogies between the natural and social sciences. However, I do think there is enough robust research to indicate that living systems – whether biological or social – have numerous correlations that we can learn from. That being said, I do believe that borrowing from quantum physics to discover how natural systems change may be useful for us to better understand how we might bring about change in our current CJ system. HSD allows us to ask a different set of questions about how bio-systems change thereby introducing new elements of systems dynamics (containers, differences and exchange) that could possibly break us out of the ‘either/or’ thinking that often leads to an impasse on the issue of what kind of social or structural change does RJ offer.

    3.) Regarding the assumptions of the interconnectivity of the western notions of individualism, retribution and violence: The very conception of the nation-state structure is predicated on the ‘rights’ of individual citizenry, the right of the state to punish any person deemed to have impinged on the rights of others, and the sanctioned right of the state to “wield the sword” in protection of it’s citizens and in defense of its borders against attack. The modern criminal justice system was birthed and developed within this mind-set and therefore has always claimed its ‘legitimate’ right to punish and protect with state-sanctioned violence (e.g. death penalty, solitary confinement, imprisonment and in the case of terrorism the ‘right’ to torture in order to extract information from suspected criminals.) This does not infer that all aspects of our current CJ system are violent, but the system as a whole is felt as a form of structural violence to many portions of our society. Ideally, RJ provides a non-violent platform that redistributes some of the state’s power to administer justice and places it in the hands of community or civil society representatives.

    4.) You are fair in asking for more clarification on the “right way to handle crime” – I was not intending to discuss this in detail. As stated earlier, this blog was primarily meant to prime a discussion around RJ and structural change, which of course would have policy as well as practice implications.

  6. Gerry Johnstone says:

    Hi Carl
    Thanks for this response, which really clarified for me the direction of your thinking. This is a very quick follow up as I’m tied up today with tasks far less interesting!
    On 1 – I think this is a really important debate. It would be good to hear a more sustained dialogue between you and Ross (and others) on this. A symposium on this would be good.
    Re 2 – I can’t see any problem with drawing in a sophisticated way upon natural sciences to understand social processes – Icertainly want to read more about this as it develops.
    re 3 – Here, I’d have more of an issue – both of how we understand the the formation of criminal justice and over the implications of a redistribution of the power exercised through state criminal justice to community/civil society representatives. I think we need a more nuanced picture here – and of course this goes to the heart of the issues you raise. I’ll try to set out my thoughts here in a more systematic way. In the meantime, I have written about these issues in a book called ‘Law and Crime’ (co-authored with Tony Ward) [sage 2010]. I’ll see if I can dig out pdfs fo the relevant chapters and send them to you.
    My guess is that we agree over 90 per cent, but diverge sharply over 10 per cent – and that would make for a very interesting discussion.
    It is great to see these sorts of issues being raised in such a serious way.

  7. I’ve read from other articles restorative justice is a new movement in the fields of victimology and criminology. I acknowledge that crime causes injury to people and communities, it insists that justice repair those injuries and that the parties be permitted to participate in that process. Therefore, enable the victim, the offender and affected members of the community to be directly involved in responding to the crime. They become central to the criminal justice process, with governmental and legal professionals serving as facilitators of a system that aims at offender accountability, reparation to the victim and full participation by the victim, offender and community. It involves all parties – often in face-to-face meetings – is a powerful way of addressing not only the material and physical injuries caused by crime, but the social, psychological and relational injuries as well.

    It is about 30 years old, its influence has spread around the world at a remarkable speed. We can track international development in two basic categories: innovation by countries in their use of restorative justice, and integration by countries of restorative ideas into their justice systems.

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