Where are the gaps? We need your help.

In the early days of the restorative justice field, from the late 1970s into the early 1990s, I was in a unique position to resource this emerging field. As Director of the Office on Crime and Justice of Mennonite Central Committee U.S (MCC), my mandate was to do what needed to be done.

Although the program’s staff was very small (usually a part-time assistant and me) and was not endowed with huge funding, I had time and sufficient financial resources to create materials, organize gatherings or conferences, and to help communities that asked for assistance in understanding and implementing restorative justice projects. I also had access to the significant publication and communication capabilities of MCC. Part of that time, MCC Canada had a similar office and we often collaborated.  Before undertaking any major initiative, I would usually call upon a small group of ad hoc advisors for their feedback. My primary focus was upon communities and and practitioners.

When trying to decide what needed to be done, and where to focus resources and energy, I asked a series of questions: 1) Where is the field going?   2) What does it need to move ahead, and most importantly, 3) What are the gaps? That is, what needs to be done that isn’t being done and that our small program might be able to address? In other words, I tried to avoid duplicating efforts and focused on pieces that I felt were missing.

Sometimes this meant “palavers,” small dialogue gatherings bringing together practitioners and theorists to explore an issue. Often this meant a publication, such as “The VORP Book” that was a kind of how-to manual for starting and operating a victim offender dialogue program, or “Who is My Neighbor,” a small booklet to help churches become more aware of and involved with crime victims. I also edited a series of small booklets entitled “New Perspectives on Crime and Justice: Occasional Papers” that published works by Nils Christie, Herman Bianchi and others. My first published articulation of restorative justice, entitled “Retributive Justice, Restorative Justice,” was part of this series (1985).

Next month the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding here at EMU will bring together a handful of staff and advisers to consider the mission and activities of the new Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice. I will advocate that we use similar criteria: 1) Where is the field going? That is, what are its growth areas, its areas of stagnation and its challenges? 2) What does it need to move ahead and/or address these issues? 3) Most importantly for the Institute, what are the gaps that we might be able to address given our situation and resources? My bias continues to favor the needs of community-based efforts and practitioners.

What needs to be done? What are the gaps? I would love to receive your feedback in the Comments section below.


10 comments on “Where are the gaps? We need your help.”

  1. Mikhail Lyubansky says:

    I think we need to better understand how RJ can create systematic change (e.g., in schools, in workplaces, in the criminal justice system) and how to create conditions for the paradigm shift. I’d like to see large-scale projects examining impact of a systemic RJ change, as in a high school deciding to handle “discipline” restoratively, or the district attorney’s office referring certain kinds of cases to an RJ system.

  2. John Perry says:

    I am continually astounded by the depth and breadth of invention being accomplished by a wide variety of citizens (in Vermont, which I know about) in pushing the envelope, expanding the horizons, confronting the system, and reinventing justice. I believe we should not presume to proselytize as if we know what they should do. Our job is to repeat the mantra — focus on the harm done. Support healing, and encourage experiment in regaining right relation.

  3. Ted Lewis says:

    Thanks, Howard, for opening up this discussion. Certainly one gap area among others that you have noted over the past two decades is the under-serving of victims. In my experience, the vast majority of restorative justice programs in the United States are offender-centric, and while they may provide ways for victims to voluntarily participate, the actual level of services to victims is embarrassingly smaller than the services given to offenders. (The exception to this is post-sentencing restorative dialogue for serious and violent crimes.) One way to bring more balance is for programs to serve victims on their own terms, and not just in terms of how they may fit into a program that only relies on offender referrals. Creative programming should communicate to victims: “We want to help you in any way that makes good sense to you. What do you need?” A good place to start is to connect community resources and volunteerism to victims of crime whose offenders were not identifiable. This would establish frameworks for helping any victim at the front end, and if down the line an offender is able to have safe, guided communication with that victim, all the better.

  4. P. Stephen Long says:

    I really like Ted’s comment above. This makes so much sense and can be a way that the Christian community at large and other “men of peace” can participate actively and practically in transforming a culture of retribution based justice.

  5. J. Nash says:

    Howard, I’m grateful to you for continually working toward broadening and deepening the field of restorative justice. I concur with prior comments about serving people who’ve been harmed in a better way. Being a restorative justice professional for the past 15 years, I’ve seen an emphasis on addressing the needs and underlying issues of the person responsible over the short- and long-term needs of those impacted in both restorative and retributive systems. One example comes to mind. When our child was killed by another driver in a car crash, a restorative justice professional unexpectedly called me within two weeks to share her condolences. She said, “Sorry about your child. Now have you thought about what the other driver might be going through? Can you imagine how hard it must be for them?” This person had extensive experience working with victims and offenders of serious crimes. After going through a retributive legal process for close to five years, I’ve learned a great deal on how RJ can better serve crime victims. Skilling up on victim sensitivity and awareness is a good start.

  6. Joan Kresich says:

    Howard, thank you for your enduring contributions to all of us, and for posing this question.
    I often see RJ as violence and harm prevention. I hope that all of us as practitioners will be articulating this aspect, because successful prevention means the thing you tried to prevent didn’t happen, and thus is not visible.
    I am continuing to wonder how to democratize rj. Maybe this fits with “Where are the gaps?” How can we help the concepts spread rapidly to as many people as possible? Ideally, parents and students in school would come across the ideas of RJ, and actually ask for it. Also, the same throughout the criminal justice system. I know there are many people working in those systems (and others) to bring rj aboard, but I see another necessary route forward consisting of the people served by those systems asking for rj, and teachers, principals, DA’s, judges etc. then trying to find ways to meet the requests. So, how can we get the word out broadly, to working people, those who read infrequently, those struggling financially….? Could we find ways to finance public art with rj themes? Colorful bus posters?

  7. Promote community building, so that based on those experiences “people lead and leaders follow (Gandhi). Invite people to actually experience how is to be heard and how is to listen in a pregnant silence of respect and hope. The former gung members in Nairobi who honored me sharing 4 days of their lives told me at the end: “We have always known our life’s stories, but have never been in a Circle of respect to share them together.” At the Center for Community Peacemaking (former LAVORP) in Lancaster, PA, people reflect at the end of meetings and Circles in that positive maner. They are never the same when they leave. My hope is that the ground-up work creates movements that leaders and politicians have to take seriously. Additionally, people in the ground knows better what people harmed by crimes needs.

  8. Shannon Pollock says:

    Howard, the gaps that I have seen in community restorative justice programs are 1) a way to get cases out of the court system and into community programs without just hoping that a judge or prosecutor will be so kind, and 2) collaboration between existing restorative justice programs to develop best practices and share resources.

  9. Judah Oudshoorn says:

    I continue to wonder about rj and systemic issues — ie. over representation of Aboriginal peoples in Canadian prisons, etc.

    Thanks for asking!

  10. Sarah Henkeman says:

    Hi Prof, four interlinked gaps were found when the ‘black box’ of victim offender mediation (restorative justice processing) was examined in an unequal, transitional context (South Africa).

    These interlinked gaps were (i) conceptual (ii) contextual (iii) training and (iv) practice related. This resulted in facilitators exhibiting ‘trained’ blindness and deafness, and maintaining a complicit silence. In an unequal, transitional context like South Africa, this silence was argued to be a manifestation of denial.

    Stanley Cohen and Zerubavel’s theories of denial were used to lay bare a culture of denial at the macro level which is replicated at the micro level through various manifestations and patterns of denial. Dycke and Mika’s work provided more insight on rj and the ‘constructed invisibility’ of very obvious structural violence during rj processing. Individual theories of crime were also fingered for its contribution to these gaps. In short, the argument was made that expansive, rather than modest views of rj are needed in unequal, transitional contexts.

    To respond to you request above, the gaps might be important to find, but it seems its perhaps more the definition of crime, individual focus and context that escape notice as they present the gaps (certainly in SA).

    Siri Kemeney sent you a copy of this PhD thesis which you forwarded to Carl last year. The research findings are contained in ch 7 which can be found at: https://independent.academia.edu/SHenkeman/Thesis-Chapters

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