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.

Every community member can learn and model the simple, basic interpersonal skills of Restorative Practices — no exceptions.  Conflict is inevitable, but healthy communities can maintain their health by identifying the values that guide how they handle problems and conflict.  Restorative skills help 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 individuals 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 they’re the ones who most strongly influence the final agreement on what would be adequate reparations.

This works best in communities that have already invested time and effort in building good relationships and working out collective norms, so conflict can be handled 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 virtually never heard.  The focus of our court system, and most school disciplinary systems, is on determining guilt and deciding on appropriate punishment.  Punishment is first of all retribution – offenders must pay a price for the harm they caused.  And 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, retribution as a means of external control only fosters a cycle of anger and retaliation.  Restoration aims instead at healing – 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 RJP movement started in the New Zealand juvenile justice system and expanded rapidly to other systems and countries.  No RJP initiative is complete, or without significant challenges.  But in many places, Restorative principles are working their way from the justice systems into other public services where a punitive mindset evolved, largely out of expediency and a legalistic sense of fairness.  In traditional systems like courts and schools, the focus is on the most problematic individuals and the harm they do, not on the needs of the victims or the community itself, who need to be restored to health. But 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, they convinced sujatha baliga, a star of the RJP movement, to conference the case. Forgiveness is not needed for conferencing to succeed — a common misperception — but Restorative Justice does chart a path for participants to make the journey towards forgiveness.  Healing is not guaranteed, but it can become more possible.  New York Times  — January 2013 — Can Forgiveness play a role in Criminal Justice?

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 or the grant went away.  Academicians helped the movement persist – 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 to bring local communities together for all the reasons shown on the Restorative Continuum.  Their challenge in confronting wrong-doing was like ours — letting anger and desires for retribution fester prevents the community from regaining full health.  If the situation was so bad that the tribe felt it had to kick the offender out of the community, that could well be a death sentence.  So many traditional cultures found ways to deal with offenders that would hold them accountable, but also reaffirm their belonging to the community, making it possible to build up trust again and 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, and nothing shows that better than our statistics on mass incarceration.  While Restoration has struggled to take hold in our justice system, it’s not surprising that schools across the nation are getting anxious to stem the flow 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, to 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 where students and teachers specifically practice Restorative interpersonal skills, over time developing mutual empathy and a sense of belonging.  Oakland has made great strides in 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 circle helping reintegrate an offender back into the school community.

This re-entry circle also took place in an Oakland, CA school.  Being Restorative means the community can live in peace with ex-offenders, and offenders can keep the peace by observing community norms.  But broken trust needs rebuilding, and to do that, all affected parties need to hear and understand each other’s sense 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.