The Promise of Restorative Justice
When someone commits a crime that does harm to another person or community, something is broken that needs to be healed.
Unfortunately, our incarceration-based criminal justice system often causes more damage than healing, perpetuating cycles of violence.
One approach that is being used to repair the damage that crime causes to relationships and communities is called restorative justice. It gets victims and perpetrators together in supervised encounters where victims help to determine what the prisoner will do to repair the damage they’ve done.
Addressing Root Causes
Restorative justice has its roots in Indigenous communities and ancient religious practices. Versions of restorative justice appear in Maori culture, Jewish traditions, and Mennonite communities.
The Restorative Justice Exchange is an initiative that is part of Prison Fellowship International, a global organization committed to improving the lives of prisoners, their families, and victims. One critical aspect of their work is sharing the transformative possibility of restorative justice.
Restorative justice is an inclusive process that is aimed at getting at the root causes of crime, not just punishing someone for their actions. It is based on supervised encounters between offenders who have accepted responsibility for their actions and victims who want to participate in a healing process.
Rather than locking away and isolating offenders, the idea is to reintegrate them into healthy communities by using principles of respect, empowerment, safety, and accountability.
The Restorative Justice Exchange breaks the process down into 3 main steps.
3 Step Process: Encounter, Repair, Transform
Before restorative justice encounters occur, an offender needs to take responsibility for their actions. They must want to make amends.
Encounter. The first step is a facilitated meeting in a safe space where victims, offenders, and community members all come together.
Repair. This step addresses the victim’s need for healing, the offender’s needs to make amends, and the community’s need for healthy relationships and safety.
Transform. By exploring the root causes of crime, including the systemic and structural issues, all the stakeholders are empowered to create more just systems and healthier, safer communities.
The Canadian Approach
Canada has been integrating restorative justice practices in its provinces and territories for decades, implementing these approaches at all levels of the criminal justice system. The idea of restoring balance to communities is deeply rooted in Canada’s Indigenous cultures.
The official government site provides an excellent description of restorative justice:
- Provides opportunities for victims, offenders, and communities affected by a crime to communicate (directly or indirectly) about the causes, circumstances, and impact of that crime, and to address their related needs.
- Is based on an understanding that crime is a violation of people and relationships and is based on principles of respect, compassion, and inclusivity.
- Encourages meaningful engagement and accountability and provides an opportunity for healing, reparation, and reintegration.
- Uses processes, including conferences, dialogues, and circles, and is guided by skilled facilitators.
- Is a flexible process and can take different forms depending on the community, program, case, participants, or circumstances.
- Uses processes that may take place at all stages of the criminal justice system and can be used with adults and youth.
- Is used in every province and territory and is supported by legislation and federal, provincial, and territorial government programs and policies.
Restorative justice contributes to a criminal justice system that is accessible, compassionate, and fair, and promotes the safety and well-being of Canadians.
Breaking the Cycle with a Circle
Prison Fellowship International (PFI) promotes restorative justice because the process embraces the possibility that people can change. By participating in encounters where they understand the impact of their actions and make amends, prisoners form new positive identities and begin to relate to the people in their communities in healthier ways.
“Ongoing identity transformation leads prisoners to and through a ‘crystallization of discontent’ where dissatisfaction about prior failures becomes linked to criminal identity,” the PFI website explains. “Slowly, they take responsibility for their past while simultaneously adopting a positive identity.”
A Survivor’s Story
Attendees of the 2022 Trauma & Recovery Conference have a chance to hear a firsthand account of the power of restorative justice from keynote speaker Marlee Liss. Liss is a restorative justice advocate whose sexual assault case was the first in North America to conclude with restorative justice; she fought for her assailant to go to therapy instead of prison.
“I first learned about restorative justice in 2019,” Liss writes on her website. “I was subpoenaed to go to criminal trial for a sexual assault I’d experienced. I began researching alternatives to the punitive system and fighting for a restorative justice outcome, which I was privileged and forever grateful to have experienced. I believe everyone deserves education on and access to restorative and transformative justice.”
“Hurt people hurt people,” says Liss.
Liss’ keynote presentation, titled “Restorative Justice for Sexual Harm: Why I Fought for a Circle, Not a Courtroom” explores her personal narrative and presents the case for expanding the role of restorative justice in the behavioral health care system. “Pouring more money into the existing inefficient and ineffective mental health care system will not shift the needle on this crisis,” Liss writes. “This presentation describes how empowering members of the community to deliver evidence-based psychosocial interventions could transform our mental health care system.”
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