Where will we find justice for Trayvon Martin?

David Anderson Hooker

The following is an invited guest post by my friend, colleague and fellow Morehouse College grad, David Anderson Hooker.

Update July 18, 2013:  An interview with David following the Zimmerman trial can be heard here:

I have good news and bad news for the family and supporters of Trayvon Martin: The ‘justice’ you seek is not in the system from which you seek it!  If this sounds like a Jedi mind trick, I apologize.  I hope though that it will at least cause some to stop and think.

The bad news first: The ‘justice’ you seek is not in the system from which you seek it! In the late 1970’s and 80’s Black psychologist Bobby E. Wright coined a phrase – “Mentacide: The systematic destruction of a group of people’s minds with the ultimate aim being the complete extirpation of the race.”   The prime example Wright offered of the workings of Mentacide was when African American parents would send their children to the public schools with curricula that at best neglected and at worst denigrated their entire heritage. Then the parents would complain about the impact on children’s’ self-esteem.

Similarly today, the fact that the family and supporters of the family of Trayvon Martin are looking for relief to a justice system that has historically discriminated against African Americans seems naïve and idealistic, if not fully wrongheaded.  But I think the greatest disappointment will come from the hope that the judicial system could actually provide justice.

The reason the so-called justice system is not the answer in this instance and so many others is because the system asks the wrong questions.  Judicial justice asks: What law was broken?  Who is responsible?  What punishment do they deserve?

Traipsing down this rabbit hole will end up with twisted explanations of how it is ever acceptable to kill an unarmed person, let alone an innocent teenager.  It is not clear whether a law was broken – though I fully concede that George Zimmerman should at the very least have been arrested while someone answered that question.  What happens if the answer to that question is that no laws were broken?  If that’s the case, then no punishment will be required.  And that leaves us all without answers.

The better questions to ask are the typical questions of restorative justice:  What HARM was done?  What will it take to put it right?  Who has the obligation to make it right?  What process would be most effective to involve everyone who has a stake in making it right?  This approach doesn’t excuse what by all indications was the senseless killing of a young Black man.  Rather what it does is acknowledge that this killing and the official response have created many breaches that need to be repaired.

The family has experienced a loss; this needs to be addressed.

George Zimmerman’s life has been irreparably altered – he will both want to make amends and he will need to find ways of healing from the irrational ‘negrophobia’ that likely initiated this fatal sequence.

The image and respect for every aspect of the law enforcement community has been downgraded.  In order to work most effectively, law enforcement needs to have the MERITED trust of their community.  You can’t ask for the community’s cooperation to prosecute wrongdoing when it seems that law enforcement is willing to selectively prosecute.

The sense of community is damaged.  I am not familiar with the racial and class climate in Sanford, Florida but I can’t imagine that this in any way improves it.  Likely any divisions in the community fueled by racially and ethnically-charged mistrust have hardened.  In order for civil society to flourish, trust must be established or restored.

So here’s the good news: The ‘justice’ you seek is not in the system from which you seek it!

Justice is the establishment of right relationships.  In this case, justice would include improving the sense of safety – not insecurity bred by implicit bias, but actual safety for people walking the streets; assurance that law enforcement is about justice and not JUST US; and creation of laws that favor people over property and that don’t give privilege or place to actions based in racism – by shooters, sheriffs, Assistant State’s Attorneys or anyone else.

While it is essential that we continue to demand accountability for the actors including the shooter, the sheriff and the Assistant State’s Attorneys, the sense of balance and vindication is more likely to take a long time to establish.  This will require dialogue and discussion, including the following:

  • Having the Zimmermans and other members of that community hear from Trayvon’s families about the hopes and dreams dashed by this senseless death.
  • Hearing from George Zimmerman and others who describe the life experiences that have resulted in an irrational fear of young Black men.
  • Allowing law enforcement and media to participate in dialogue to recognize that they play a significant role in creating and perpetuating the irrational fear.
  • Examining the legal permission to act on irrationality that is granted by the  “stand your ground” policy.

This will require restitution and reshaping of both laws and practice.  This will require asking different questions.  This will require a full community effort – and possibly result in an actual sense of community.

Restoration is possible and the good news is this:  you don’t have to wait for the current justice system to act to begin to establish the justice you seek.

David Anderson Hooker (J.D. M.Div.) is a lawyer, minister and mediator. For more than 25 years he has worked with communities in the US and throughout the world to host difficult conversations including post-war and post-riot reconciliation, environmental justice and restoratively transforming historical harm and injustice. He is also former Assistant Attorney General for the State of Georgia and an Associate Professor at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University.

April 4th, 2012 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Beware of labels

Recently I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with a friend of some 20 years.  Tyrone Werts is a wise man, a leader, an inspiration to many, who has spent years organizing and helping to sustain others.  He has long been actively engaged in efforts to reduce violence in society.

Tyrone Werts, early 1990s

His picture is on the front cover of my book “Doing Life”  because he has been serving a life sentence – in Pennsylvania, this means life without possibility of parole.

On several occasions, I’ve had prison officers comment that if he were outside, with his relational and leadership skills, he would be CEO of a company. For years he served as president of the lifer’s organization in Graterford prison.

Then, by some miracle (and lots of support from key community figures), after 37 years in prison, Tyrone’s sentence was commuted and he was released last year.  This is an exceedingly rare occurrence in Pennsylvania

Tyrone Werts 2012

What must it be like to be free after 37 years inside?  Tyrone says that he hasn’t had an unhappy day since he got out.  He is working part time as a consultant for the public defender’s office, part time with the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program at Temple University that brings college students into prison to study together with prisoners.  He has a nice car.  He looks great.  He is on email.  He skypes. He says the weirdest part is being with friends like me who he only knew on the inside.

Tyrone met me at a judges’ conference in Philadelphia where I had just spoken and he seemed to fit right in. He then took me to a conference where we were on a panel together.  He seemed to know everyone and the people he didn’t know, he reached out to.  He laughed when I told him he had the same relational skills and style outside that I had observed inside the walls.

Reflecting back, Tyrone commented that when he was convicted, he was considered a sociopath.  What a sobering reminder of the dangers of labels and stereotypes.

I look forward to the time when he is free to travel and he will be available as a speaker for other communities.  He has so much to offer.

Podcast interview with Tyrone here.

March 12th, 2012 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Photography, Restorative Justice)

Restorative justice principles and indicators

As a response to earlier blog entries, Jon Kidde developed an RJ continuum and set of principles or indicators.  With his permission, I am posting them as a guest entry.   Jon welcomes feedback on these.

To see a larger version of the continuum, click here.

RESTORATIVE JUSTICE: principles and indicators


Involve those impacted/affected, including the community, (i.e. victim, family, neighborhood, school, offender) in the resolution.

Engagement of person(s) harmed:

  • Evidence that demonstrates the program provides meaningful invitations to participate (e.g. more than one personalized contact attempt. A single form letter would not demonstrate this).
  • Evidence that demonstrates those harmed have the opportunity to provide input and reasonably shape the outcome. (engagement & restoration)

Engagement of person(s) who have caused harm:

  • Evidence that demonstrates that the program actively involves participants in understanding the harm and related needs as well as their ideas and input in determining the agreements/outcome.

Community Engagement

  • Evidence that demonstrates the program actively involves the community in the response to the needs illuminated/harm experienced by all parties.


Encourage appropriate responsibility to address needs and repair the harm.

  • Evidence that demonstrates the program ensures that the participants acknowledge responsibility for the harm caused.
  • Evidence that demonstrates the program provides opportunities for the person who caused the harm to develop an understanding of how his/her actions affected others.
  • Evidence that demonstrates the program facilitates the development of agreements that directly relate to repairing the harm as defined by those directly affected—victim and offender.


Acknowledgement and repair of the harm caused by, and revealed by, wrongdoing.

  • Evidence that demonstrates the program ensures that the participants acknowledge responsibility for the harm caused.
  •  Evidence that demonstrates completion of agreements focused on repairing the harm.
  •  Evidence that demonstrates satisfaction among those harmed with the outcome of the process used.

(Adapted from and influenced by Howard Zehr’s blog)


A bit of background on Jon:

Jon Kidde has been exploring the concepts of restorative justice for over 14 years and has been influential in the design and implementation of several programs based on restorative justice in Wyoming and California.

He has conducted research on the perspectives of youth, parents, victims, and community members who have interacted with the Juvenile Court. He enjoys facilitating strategic planning for organizations interested in increasing opportunities for collaboration, dialogue, and shared power and decision-making.

Jon is currently thinking broadly about how to effectively bridge the gap that exists between on the ground practices and (1) their foundationalprinciples, (2) governing policies, and (3) outcome evaluation research designed to inform practice.

Jon lives in Vermont with his wife, Heather, and daughter Lily Lyon. He currently supervises the implementation of a statewide initiative to enhance Court Diversion Programs in Vermont.

December 29th, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Good and bad victims?

Is a victim of crime who values restorative justice welcome in the restorative justice community only if s/he “works for” forgiveness?

How is a victim of crime who believes in healing for both victim and offender, but continues to struggle with her/his understanding of justice, supported by restorative justice groups and associations? 

Are victims invited to the restorative justice dialogue even when they are far from knowing what healing means – but yearn to enter this place?

If a victim does not understand or believe in restorative justice, is s/he excluded from the dialogue?

Does rj have room for victims who are in the throes of deep and savage grief, feeling that they are somehow “bad” because they are not “chosen” or “holy” or “healed” enough to belong to what can often seem an elite group who “know” about living life after crime?

Margot Van Sluytman, whose father was murdered, has dedicated her life to the healing of both victims and offenders.  Recently she emailed me these questions after attending a restorative justice conference. They are important questions.

It is tempting for restorative justice advocates, consciously or not, to differentiate between “good” and “bad victims.” Good victims are those who are ready to forgive and reconcile; bad victims are those who are angry, punitive and unforgiving.

“How do we react to such victims?” asks Heather Strang in her essay, “Is Restorative Justice Imposing Its Agenda on Victims?” (Critical Issues in Restorative Justice, Zehr & Toews, eds.).  “Probably most often by dreading and discouraging the one and encouraging and welcoming the other,” she observes.  Strange goes on to suggest that “bad” is often a function of the emotional harm they have suffered and that they may have the most to gain from an encounter.

An attitude of forgiveness is a lovely thing, and a restorative encounter that results in some measure of forgiveness or reconciliation is wonderful. However, I would suggest that this is not a goal of restorative justice and is not a measure of whether an approach qualifies as restorative justice.  For me, restorative justice is about addressing harms and needs, and helping those who have offended to understand and accept the resulting obligations.  To the extent possible, it implies a collaborative and dialogical process.  As long as an encounter can be engaged in respectfully and safely for all participants, whether a victim is angry or forgiving is not the decisive factor.  And in an encounter, the choice to forgive and reconcile is totally up to the participants; forgiveness is not a measure of whether a restorative justice approach has occurred or is worthwhile.

It is important that we as practitioners welcome those who have been harmed into our midst, regardless of their orientation.  Restorative justice calls us to listen to their harms and to the extent we can, help them identify and address their needs, regardless of whether they are forgiving.  That, to my mind, is essential to being a restorative justice community.


November 29th, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)

A needle for the restorative justice compass

In my last blog post I summarized Dorothy Vaandering’s concern that without an understanding of the term “justice,” restorative justice may be a compass without a needle.  It is important not to lose the justice dimension in restorative approaches, she suggests, but we must not allow our understandings to be unduly limited by concepts such as fairness and a narrow adversarial focus that are associated with criminal justice.

Drawing upon Freire and Buber, she bases her understanding of justice on what it means to be human:  “one in which justice is identified as honoring the inherent worth of all and enacted through relationships.”  These two terms together – honor and relationships – provide a needle to guide restorative justice proponents and practitioners.

Analyzing the characterization of criminal justice included in The Little Book of Restorative Justice, she observes that what is at stake are these two concepts.  The justice system tends to turn those who have caused harm into objects to be acted upon.  By omission, those who have been harmed are assumed to have no significant needs.  Restorative justice, on the other hand, recognizes that harm is done by and to human beings.

Injustice occurs when people are turned into objects through relationships.  Justice occurs when people are honored through relationships.

So for Vaandering, what is needed in restorative justice is a concerned effort to remind us all of the following:

  • Justice is a call to recognize that all humans are worthy and to be honored.
  • Injustice occurs when people are objectified.
  • The term restorative justice becomes meaningful when it refers to restoring people to being honored as human.
So it is crucial that the terms “restorative” and “justice” be kept and paired together, but with a broader understanding of justice. Without this pairing, the field is functioning as a compass without a needle.
In practice, she argues that continually asking oneself these three questions can keep us on track:
  1. Am I measuring (i.e. judging, objectifying)?
  2. Am I honoring?
  3. What message am I sending?
She suggests a definition of restorative justice:
“RJ acknowledges justice as honoring the inherent worth of all and is enacted through relationship.  As such it affects all social structures.  When something occurs that undermines the well-being of some, RJ provides a space for dialogue so that the humanity of all involved and affected can be restored and each person can once again become a fully contributing member of the community of which they are a part.” (p. 324)

With this “lens,” restorative justice is not something from the outside, as a solution for others.  It is a way of being for all of us.



September 28th, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)

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.)



September 14th, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)

Summer reading

As is obvious from the gap in my posts, I’ve been taking a break from my blog this sumer.  However, I will come out of hiding long enough to post a few recent resources. They aren’t the usual summer beach reading but maybe they will be of interest anyway.

Our friends at Community Justice Initiatives British Columbia have just posted a free on-line publication, Walking the Talk:  Developing Ethics Frameworks for the Practice of Restorative Justice, by Susan Sharpe. This resource is intended to help organizations sort out the values that they wish to live by. Given the difficulties of living by the principles we espouse in our organizations, this will be an important publication for those of involved in restorative justice programs.

Susan L. Miller’s After the Crime: The power of restorative justice – dialogues between victims and offenders (New York University Press, 2011) is a careful and readable examination of severe violence dialogue approaches.

In the forward to The Jesus Factor in Justice & Peacemaking by C. Norman Kraus (Cascadia, 2011), I said this:  “If you are a Christian interested in peace, if you are a Christian justice or peace practitioner, if you are Buddhist or Hindu or Jewish and interested in understanding connections between your own faith and Christian approaches to peace – then this book is for you.”

I am currently reading The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander (The New Press, 2010). This is an absolute must for anyone involved with justice issues in the United States. Those of us involved in restorative justice especially need to think through its implications for our work and thought.

For those who would rather listen than read at the beach, two great interviews about restorative justice involving my friend Sujatha Baliga. One is from NPR’s Talk of the Nation, “Victims Confront Offenders.”  The other, perhaps more interesting, interview is in a podcast from “Criminal Justice Conversations Podcast with David Onek.”

Finally, you may want to consider two upcoming international restorative justice conferences.  One is coming up quickly, in November, in New Zealand.  The other will be held by the European Forum for Restorative Justice in Finland in June, 2012.


August 3rd, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Forget restorative justice

Guest Blog by Aaron Lyons

“True justice emerges through conversation” – Howard Zehr

“So, what are your thoughts on the killing of Osama Bin Laden?,” a woman inquires almost casually at a spring dinner party. Admittedly, the US military operation in Pakistan occupies the minds of many at this time – but surely this is not the usual pre-dinner small-talk. Realizing I’ve probably invited the challenge by my mention of my work in restorative justice, I engage with her in the hopes that we might unearth some of the topic’s complexity.

Quickly the more fundamental questions rise to the surface: How do we make sense of injustice? What is the true meaning of accountability? How do we attempt to restore order in the face of irreparable harm? Can people change? What does healing require? What are our own needs within all of this? Caught in this rich quagmire, and with no easy answers, we are the last to sit down to dinner.

Our work in restorative justice demands a skill that both transcends and includes direct engagement with participants. Beyond facilitating dialogue in the aftermath of harm, restorative justice practitioners have the implicit role of facilitating a gradual, collective re-visioning of justice in society. As we look up from our immediate work to the larger conversations that form our social and political environment, we observe that to practice restorative justice is to engage with the retributive and adversarial frames of justice that constitute the status quo.

Whether we wish it or not, our work brings us into dialogue with the people who by their views uphold an apparently different conception of justice. The stance we take in engaging with the deep-seated impulse towards punishment is of vital importance. It will be paramount to the success of our attempts at re-visioning justice in accordance with restorative values.

We as restorative justice advocates are often lured by our own passion into a kind of philosophical zealousness. It goes something like this: we know a way that is more holistic, effective and morally satisfying to deal with crime and its impacts; thus in order to achieve a more truly just world, we must educate and convert the public and decision-makers on the merit of this approach. Sound vaguely familiar?

There is a dissonance in the notion of restorative justice approaching its aims through adversarial means.  Restorative justice is not about denying or silencing the voices of anyone, including its opposition. Its spirit is just the opposite. When we’re most clear-headed, we understand that our prerogative is to listen to dissent as though our survival depends on it – which indeed, as a movement, it might. We cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to the sentiments underlying the impulse to punish. There is too much richness there, too much of importance.

This very conversation is the realm in which we humans negotiate our feelings of hurt and fear and grief, our rage, our needs for safety and dignity and felt accountability. We will never succeed as a partner in that negotiation if we cling to our positions and blindly impose our preferred outcomes.

The search for justice should be an act of deepening, not hardening. Let’s be clear – engaging openly with the punitive impulse does not mean accepting the thirst for vengeance at face value, or standing by mutely while destructive emotions chart the course of action. A restorative mindset suggests a spirit of both curiosity and companionship – of working together to excavate ever deeper through the layers of constructed meaning about justice. It is about inquiring deeply into an individual’s perceptions of justice, and then when their apparent conclusion has been presented, asking “what for” once more.

Our work invites us to seek the bedrock of a person’s sense of justice, trusting that beneath the strata of fear, pain and reaction there are some clear gems of truth. We cannot predict what we will find there. It may appear messy, falling nowhere within our own neat conceptions of “restorative.” But maybe this unknown and even feral quality is part of the inherent richness of our work.

Being a catalyst for exploratory justice conversations does not require that we adopt a facade of neutrality with regard to our own sense of justice. Such conversations rightly hold all of us in dialogue with our own most deeply held values. But if our concern is with meaningful justice, then our primary task is that of holding space for others as they navigate their way through emotional, substantive and spiritual questions.

Our commitment to justice is expressed as an invitation to dialogue. More than advocating for a certain type of justice, we are invited to stand for a certain type of conversation about justice.

[Aaron Lyons (MA ’08) is a restorative justice practitioner and trainer with the British Columbia based Fraser Region Community Justice Initiatives Association. His journey with restorative justice began 10 years ago and has brought him into dialogue about justice issues with people throughout many parts of the world. Aaron blogs at Restoring Justice.]

June 16th, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

Relationships matter

A recent conference on our campus entitled Conversations on Attachment included two prominent scholars working in neuroscience:  Dr. James Coan, a psychologist, and Dr. Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist.  A few points from their presentations help explain why relationships are so important:


  • “Our brains are designed to be with other people.”  The “baseline brain” is not alone; it is in relationship.  The brain expects social relationships; the “weird situation” is when we are alone.
  • We aren’t designed to solve problems by ourselves; we are designed to be interdependent.  When we are isolated from others, we perceive that we have more problems and it takes more energy to solve them.  “Relationships matter.”
  • When we are familiar with someone, they become parts  of us; we extend ourselves to them.  “I am you and you are we.”  If you are under threat, then part of me is under threat.  Human altruism is partially explained by this.
  • Read more from Coan’s presentation


  • It is an optical illusion that the self is confined by the skin, separate from others. Happiness, wisdom and health all come from a sense of self that is connected to a much larger entity than the individual body.
  • Both genes and experience shape our brains.  Since the brain is designed to connect with others, and because much of its development occurs after birth, attachment experiences and cultural messages affect how the brain is wired.
  • 1500 years of cultural messages that our self is limited to our skin, separate from others, has impacted our brains in a way that is unreal, unhealthy and destructive to ourselves and the planet.
  • Scaring people about the future of the planet hasn’t worked.  Informing hasn’t worked.  We have to expand the self from “me” to “we” or we are dead. The health of the planet is a moral issue.
  • A key to health and recovery is in relationship.  That is why it is so important to feel heard.  As one counseling client said to him, the breakthrough was “when I felt felt.”
  • Trauma and neglect destroy integrated brain functioning. Both chaos and rigidity result from impaired regulation and integration.
  • When threatened, people amplify who they think is the “in-group” and who is the “out-group.”  They treat the in-group with more tenderness and affection and the out-group with more hostility and disrespect.  If you identify someone as different from you, the circuitry of compassion and empathy shuts down.
  • Read more from Siegel’s presentation

This basic relational orientation of the brain, I would suggest, explains why restorative justice is so important and why restorative processes are often successful.  This also helps explain the often-negative consequences of a criminal justice approach that encourages us to divide the world into “us” and “them.”  And it goes far to explain our nation’s responses to the tragedy of 9/11.

Relationships matter. Restorative justice reminds us of this web of relationships and suggests principles and practices to create and restore healthy relationships.

As Christian Early, a Bible and Religion professor at EMU, noted in his response to Coan, “it is good for us to live in community.”  Yet human connection can also be a source of great stress.  That is why it is so important that we develop practices of restoration and reconciliation.

Ultimately restorative justice is not about crime or about specific programs or practice models.  It is a reminder that we are fundamentally interconnected; it is a call to practice the arts of relationship. As Siegel said, we have to expand the self from “me” to “we” or we are dead.



In a 2009 blog entry I discussed the contribution of restorative justice to the overall effort of building a peaceful world.  Since that entry is buried in the blog archives, perhaps it is worth repeating some of it here.

Peacebuilding is about relationships; it is about building, mending and maintaining healthy relationships.  To this effort restorative justice makes these specific contributions:

  1. A recognition that questions of justice and injustice are central to conflict and must be addressed if we are to manage conflict and build peaceful communities.
  2. A relational understanding of wrongdoing that focuses on the impact on people and relationships rather than rules.
  3. A set of principles to guide us when a harm or wrong has occurred. Put simply, these might be called reparation, accountability and engagement.
  4. A group of specific practices that, although they use some skill sets similar to those for conflict resolution, allow us to name and address the harms involved and the resulting obligations. These include victim offender conferencing, family or restorative group conferencing and – perhaps most powerful and widely applicable – circle processes.
  5. An explicit grounding in core values that not only guide the processes but are fundamental for healthy relationships. While a number of values are often named, I often identify these core values as three “R’s” – respect, responsibility and relationships.


April 12th, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice)

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.

March 10th, 2011 – by Howard Zehr Zehr (category: Restorative Justice)