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Our Justice System Requires Us To Punish Wrongdoers. What If There Were a Better Way?

Is there a better way of “doing justice”? The alternative may surprise you.

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D.
Psychology Today

“No justice. No Peace.”  What exactly does this sign mean?

We think we know what it means — that we who want justice are willing to fight for it.  The words have a deeper meaning, of course. They are intended to remind us that it is not possible to have a peaceful society as long as there is injustice, because inevitably those who are oppressed will rise up. As slogans go, this one is pretty clever, so clever, in fact, that it’s easy to get caught up in the words and forget to think about what they actually mean.

What is it that we really want when we say we want justice?

A year ago I would have easily answered “true equality under the law” — as opposed to our current criminal (in)justice system, in which race clearly plays a major role.  More to the point, I would have said that I wanted the determination of guilt and the administration of punishment to not be correlated to race or any other demographic characteristic.

Today, I’m no longer satisfied with that.

For those of us living in the United States, “doing justice” is mostly synonymous with administering punishment.  We may not literally follow the Biblical edict of “an eye for an eye”, but most of us still believe that “the punishment must fit the crime”.  Indeed, many of us would be hard pressed to even come up with an alternative justice system.

Yet alternatives abound in the form of restorative justice.

There are many restorative justice systems. The one I’ve been studying is Restorative Circles (RC), a system developed by Dominic Barter in the shanty towns of urban Brazil and now spreading across the world as a means of promoting and facilitating social justice, group cohesion, resilient relationships and personal healing.

Restorative Circles provide a way for individuals and communities to handle conflicts, including racial conflicts, compassionately rather than punitively, as well as to heal and learn from these conflicts.  These days when I say I want justice, this is the kind of justice system I have in mind — a system that values everyone’s needs and is designed to address those needs without either blame or compromise1.

To the uninitiated, restorative processes may appear idealistic and naive. After all, they reject the two core aspects of the traditional justice system: the assignment of blame and the administration of punishment. Instead, the goal of the Circle is for the parties involved in the conflict to first gain mutual understanding of the others’ experiences and needs and then to restore or build a mutually satisfying relationship.

Talking is involved, so is listening. Lots of listening. But it’s a decidedly different type of talk than people usually engage in2, and it’s not just talk.

The restorative process is designed to lead to voluntary (and they really are voluntary!) acts offered to repair or restore the relationship. The two words are not synonymous. Reparative acts have to do with compensation — paying for a broken window is a reparative act — while restorative acts are those whose value is largely symbolic, a heart-felt apology may qualify, or a basket of vegetables from one’s garden, or an invitation to dinner. It’s certainly not surprising that people prefer to have both, but it turns out, Barter explains, that if they can only have one, there is a strong preference for acts that are restorative.

And yet, Restorative Circles aren’t, at the heart of it, about apologies or even about restorative acts more generally. They’re about mutual understanding and connection. Too often racial conflict is addressed with (legitimate) accusations. Denial ensues. Feelings are hurt. At the end, no one feels good about what happened.

Restorative processes offer an alternative, one that connects people by allowing them to not just understand each other but experience each other’s humanity.  That’s why restorative acts are offered. That’s why they are experienced as restorative.  There is nothing like it in our current ways of doing justice.

In his trainings, Barter weaves in multiple examples from a variety of contexts. In one, a masked thief enters a small convenience store and robs the owner at gunpoint. He is apprehended a short while later and agrees to a restorative process. In that process, he explains that he did what he did because he was pressured to do so by a gang in order to demonstrate his commitment. The store owner shares how, weeks later, he still felt traumatized by the incident. It takes more than an hour to work through the nuances of understanding each other. When they finally reach the action phase of the process, the store owner offers the would-be-thief a job in the store.

Skeptical? I was too. And I wasn’t about to be be convinced by testimonials and personal anecdotes.  I wanted hard data, and I knew how to find it.  What I found was one empirical study after another that demonstrated the effectiveness of restorative systems. Indeed, a review of research on restorative justice across multiple continents showed that restorative systems reduce recidivism in both violent and property crime in comparison to traditional justice systems and provide a variety of benefits to the “victims”, including improved mental health and greater satisfaction with the justice process (Sherman & Strang, 2007).

Such a profound process should be difficult to facilitate, intimidating to even contemplate. It isn’t. Part of the reason is that Barter has whittled the RC process to the bare essentials, which are few and relatively easy to learn, if not master. Another part is that Barter encourages a minimalist approach. “When I facilitate a circle,” he says, “I intensely desire everyone’s well-being and that’s why I try to do nothing to help them.” The statement seems paradoxical, but Barter is making an important point: The power of RC rests in the process, and it is the structure of the process that creates change, not the facilitator, whose job is merely to create and hold the space for the process to unfold.

Barter says the facilitators he enjoys observing most are those under the age of 10. Why not? In Dominic Barter’s world, schoolchildren spontaneously break out into a restorative circle during recess. It seems downright inconceivable at first, but after a few days with Barter, the message sinks in: Facilitating a circle is child’s play. Anyone can do it.

Given the level of conflict and injustice in our world, I wish everyone would.

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