RESTORATIVE JUSTICE: What’s it all about?
Addressing the effects of crime
Restorative justice responds to crime in ways that repair harm, restore relationships, and leave communities healthier, stronger, and safer.
Instead of asking which law was broken, restorative justice asks the question: Who has been affected by this crime? Yes, a law has been broken. But it is not the only thing that has been broken.
Sometimes a person’s property is damaged or stolen.
Or they are injured.
Or trust has been broken.
Or a sense of safety has been lost.
Usually when a crime is committed, not only is a law broken, but people and property have been harmed. Addressing the broken law is important, but it is also important to address the harm that was caused.
Restorative justice is an approach that acknowledges the harm caused by crime—to the victim, to the offender, and to the community—and sees that the harm is addressed. Only when we find constructive ways to repair the harm that has been caused will we begin to address the true effects of crime in our communities.
A different starting point for thinking about crime
It is fairly clear that crime is a problem that afflicts many of our communities. But it’s less clear how the problem of crime can be solved. An important place to start is understanding what crime is.
So, what is crime? On one level, a crime is an action prohibited by a law, an action that breaks a rule. We, as a society, have made laws in order to protect our safety, to keep the peace by holding people accountable for illegal behavior. When you commit a crime, you are given the prescribed punishment for the law you have broken.
Seems fair, right? But while criminal sentences may punish criminals for their behavior, they don’t always address the other effects that crime has on society.
Restorative justice starts by identifying the effects of crime on the victim, the offender, and the community, and then asks how those effects can be addressed.
Three pillars of restorative justice
Howard Zehr, a prominent thinker in the field of restorative justice, has identified three pillars of restorative justice:
1) Restorative justice focuses on harm.
2) Wrongs or harms result in obligations.
3) Restorative justice promotes engagement or participation.1
In other words, crime can be fundamentally understood as harm that has been caused to people and communities. Having caused harm, an offender has the obligation and responsibility to make things right as much as is possible. In order for this to happen, not only the offender, but also the victim and the community, need to be engaged in responding to crime: identifying victims’ needs, holding offenders accountable to repair the harm they have caused, and assisting them in finding ways to make things right.
1 Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice. (Good Books, 2002) p22.