History of the Restorative Movement

History of Restorative Practices and Justice

Community-based justice systems have been the standard since the beginning of human civilization. However, in Middle Ages Europe the power struggle between Church and State led kings to consolidate their control by taking over the role of victim in criminal and civil disputes then meting out punishment in a process that only grew more specialized and punitive with time. Restorative practices were kept alive by communities who continued to practice them, often despite western attempts at cultural genocide and legal hegemony and are now being reaccepted as integral elements of healthy societies and justice systems.

The Modern Restorative Movement

The modern Restorative Justice movement to bring restorative practices back into formal legal systems began in the late 1970s, spurred by the activism of the Maori tribe in New Zealand, where Aboriginal children were being remanded into the justice system at significantly higher rates than children of the white majority. To address this, Maori leaders asked to bring the wrong-doers to tribal circles where the offense and its ramifications could be handled by the families of both victim and offender, in the context of a larger community. The goal was to restore order and harmony in a sustainable way while avoiding the cycle of vengeance that characterizes retributive justice. This “new-old” way of addressing violations of community norms has been embraced by state justice systems around the world who are increasingly confronted with the failure of retributive models.

Bringing Restorative Practices to Schools

In 2007, Hull, a struggling city in England, implemented restorative practices in two schools and a social services agency. The success of this model motivated a broad coalition to scale up the idea and offer restorative training to thousands of child-serving professionals and parents. It quickly became clear that this solution-focused philosophy was far better at giving kids the opportunity to become healthy, productive community members than the previous, punitive methods. In only a few years, Hull’s graduation rate soared, negative social statistics plummeted, and hints of economic revitalization emerged.

These international examples, among others such as country-wide truth and reconciliation committees, juvenile justice diversion programs and the return of legal sovereignty to indigenous groups, have inspired many restorative efforts here in the United States, including school district-based initiatives in Oakland, Denver, Chicago and Rhode Island.