RJP 101 – A Quick Introductory Course in 10 Steps

“Restorative Justice is an ancient idea whose time has come.”

— Dennis Maloney, Oregon Police Officer

1. RJP is for the whole community.

Restorative Justice Practices is not a program.  It’s a common language attached to a common set of simple expectations.  It’s a way of life.  Every member of a community can learn and model the basic interpersonal skills of Restorative Practices — no exceptions.

Though conflict is inevitable, healthy communities can sustain themselves by identifying the values that guide how they handle projects, problems and conflict.  Restorative skills help build relationships and communities, reduce tension, resolve differences, take responsibility for our actions, and make amends when we’ve done harm to others.

2. Some call Restorative Practices "sandbox skills."

Circles are Restoration’s signature technique, applicable to every point along the Restorative Continuum.  Circling can involve any number of people, from a couple to a team to a whole community.  In circles all voices are heard, as each individual takes a turn at answering the same question, responsibly, using the other Restorative skills.  When harm needs to be repaired, the victims’ voices are not only invited in (as they aren’t in traditional justice systems) but strongly influence the final agreement on what adequate reparations would be .

Amends are most successful when communities have already invested time and effort in working out their collective norms, so they know how to handle conflict with sensitive and effective protocols.

3. The opposite of restoration is retribution – the critical distinction.

In the modern criminal justice system, the voices of the victims are hardly ever heard.  Court systems, and most school disciplinary systems, focus on determining guilt and meting out punishment.  The primary purpose is retribution – offenders must pay a price for the harm they caused.  Secondly, the threat of more punishment is supposed to deter them from offending again.  But in fact, research shows you can’t hurt people into healthy behavior.  More often, retributive external control only fosters a cycle of anger and retaliation.  Instead, Restoration aims to heal – both by attending to the needs and wishes of victims and by teaching offenders internal control, taking responsibility for their own behavior.  International evidence shows this approach to be far more effective in reducing recidivism.

4. Internationally, Restorative Justice began in the prisons and justice system.

The modern RJP movement is an international response to the need for alternatives to current retributive justice systems.  Several countries found solutions in the indigenous practice of tribal circles – for example, New Zealand implemented Maori tribal traditions in their juvenile justice system, significantly reducing recidivism rates.  This caught the attention of indigenous people elsewhere, and their practices are being integrated into many justice systems.  But implementing Restorative principles has been challenging everywhere, and in no country is the process complete.  Typically justice systems focus only on offenders, determining guilt and meting out punishment.  Restoration focuses first on the needs of victims, and then on the community itself, which also needs to be restored to health. As this video explains, we can no longer pretend that we have no alternatives to the current justice system.

5. RJ began reaching a wide American audience via this heartbreaking story.

Two 19-year-olds had a tempestuous romance that went horribly wrong.  Their families knew one another and both had strong spiritual convictions.  No prison sentence could bring healing to this wretched situation.  After a year of trying to find a Restorative Justice facilitator, they convinced sujatha baliga, a star of the RJP movement, to conference the case.  The New York Times reported the story in January 2013 — Can Forgiveness play a role in Criminal Justice?  It’s a misconception, though, that successful conferencing must lead to forgiveness.  Restorative Justice does chart a path for participants to make the journey towards forgiveness — that level of healing is not guaranteed, but it can become more possible.

Head picture NYT article

6. In America, RJ took root in academia and in religious communities.

Charismatic leaders across the country have worked to establish pilot Restorative initiatives, but often these isolated pockets of good work dissipated once the leader moved on or the grant ran out.  Academicians have helped the movement persist despite these setbacks – professors like Dr. Mark Umbreit at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Restorative Justice, among many others.  This ground-breaking text, Changing Lenses, by Howard Zehr at Eastern Mennonite University is considered the seminal work of America’s Restorative movement.  (Alert:  It’s a slightly tough read, not because of its spirituality, though his faith is much in evidence, but because ever fewer of us are used to reading work that’s basically academic.)

7. Long before the modern justice system, cultures achieved justice with circles.

In The Little Book of Circle Processes, Kay Pranis adapts the techniques of ancient tribal circles, used around the globe, designed to bring healing to local communities that have experienced harm.  The challenges to any community in confronting wrong-doing are the same — strong feelings of anger and demands for retribution can prevent the community from regaining full health.  Pranis describes how traditional cultures brought offenders to tribal circles where they could face their victims, take responsibility for their actions and agree to make amends.  When successful, offenders were welcomed back as full members of the community, making it possible to build up trust again and to live in peace with one another.  Pranis gives many concrete examples of the modern use of circles, and shows how to make them work effectively and responsibly for a wide variety of purposes.

8. In America, Restoration has finally begun to thrive in schools.

America is the most punitive country in the developed world, as evidenced by our reliance on mass incarceration.  While Restoration has struggled to take hold in the U.S. justice system, it’s not surprising that schools across the nation are getting anxious to staunch the flow of kids through the school-to-prison pipeline.  This project in New York City shows what RJP is and is not, and how taking time to build relationships and encourage empathy can cultivate a school community with much less conflict and misbehavior.

9. This Oakland advisory shows relationship-building in process.

Many schools struggle to find time for purposefully building trust among adults and students.  In the late 1990s, educators developed a protocol called “advisories” — time set aside for regular small-group meetings that personalize the sterile environments especially of large public schools.  The movement more or less died in the 2000’s, with the hyper-focus on test scores .  But the Oakland, CA school district brought back advisories to give students and adults time to practice Restorative interpersonal skills, to develop mutual empathy and a sense of belonging.  Until recent budget cuts, Oakland had made impressive strides toward reducing suspensions, expulsions and disciplinary referrals.  This video shows one of their advisory sessions, a clear illustration of investment in the “Relationship and Community-Building” end of the Restorative Continuum.

10. A real-life accountability circle to reintegrate an offender back into the school community.

This re-entry circle also took place in an Oakland, CA school.  These circles help the community live in peace with ex-offenders, and help offenders keep the peace by respecting community norms.  Broken trust needs rebuilding, and to do that, all affected parties need to hear and understand each other’s experience of the harm that was done.  Restoration focuses on the context in which the harmful behavior took place — what was going on for everyone involved.  In this video we don’t find out what the young man’s crime was, but we see his context.  This conference accurately reflects the strong emotions, the effort and the tensions typical of such meetings.  While ultimately healing, conferences and accountability circles are often painful for many participants, as they confront the pain of others and begin to see how they may have contributed to the damage done.

Importantly, Restorative Justice, like the above re-entry circle, helps the community cycle back from the “Repairing Harm” end of the Restorative Continuum to the skills and work involved in “Building Relationships and Maintaining Community.”  RJP’s aim is to heal, not hurt.  No one can be punished or hurt into healthy behavior.