An Introduction to Restorative Justice

By Carolyn Boyes-Watson

Carolyn Boyes-Watson, Ph.D., is Director of the Center for Restorative Justice, Suffolk University. She wrote this introductory essay for the Center in 2002 and participated the next year in the Center's restorative justice seminar series. Her most recent book is Peacemaking Circles & Urban Youth: Bringing Justice Home (Living Justice Press, 2008).

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In a post-September 11th world, no one can doubt that the search for justice is one of the most powerful desires of the human heart. But do we know what we are searching for? We cry and fight for justice, but do we know what we need in order to feel satisfied and whole after we have been harmed? I believe most Western democratic societies are woefully (and willfully) ignorant about the complex human experience of justice. The small but vigorous movement towards restorative justice is a hopeful sign that we may, at last, be ready to learn.

Most Americans think of punishment as the essence of justice. The United States has the largest penal system in the world delivering the indignities and pains of incarceration to roughly two million American citizens, mostly poor people of color. But does this mean we have justice? Many Americans are profoundly dissatisfied with the “justice” of our criminal justice system. Ask the average person on the street and s/he will bitterly complain that the criminal justice system does not work. Yet s/he will also tell you that punishment is necessary. This will happen not because people are particularly vengeful or retributive, but because if one person harms another, most people believe that the individual at fault should not be allowed to walk away as if nothing happened. Even if incarceration doesn’t work, we reason, some kind of justice is better than no justice at all.

The real problem is that the American criminal justice system offers only one kind of justice: retributive justice. And retribution is only a small part of what justice truly is. In fact, vengeance may be the least important aim of justice. When we listen to victims and examine their search for healing and wholeness, we begin to understand that the meaning of justice is far more complex than mere punishment of the offender.

A key question in the search for justice is “What do victims want?” Above all, victims want information: they want to know the truth about what happened; they want the offender to admit what s/he did and to acknowledge it was wrong; and they often want to know more about the person who harmed them and to understand what led them to this behavior. Very often victims want assurances that this won’t happen again, either to themselves or someone else. They may want their property repaired or their belongings returned, but material restitution is often secondary to the satisfaction of knowing that whoever was in the wrong is taking steps to make things right. Simply put, victims want to see real changes in the offender.

But victims also are looking for responses from the community in their search for justice. They want society to condemn the act as wrong and not blame them for what happened. They want a sense of safety and moral order restored. They want the individual offender to be accountable, but they also often want the community to deal with the social conditions that generate crime. They do not want the same thing to happen over and over again with different names and faces. In their search for justice, victims are rarely focused solely on what has happened in the past: their quest is for a better future.

What many victims are searching for is a kind of justice now widely referred to as restorative justice. Restorative justice is not new. It is, in fact, very old. The rediscovery of the principles of restorative justice is taking place in New Zealand, Canada, Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. Victim-offender dialogue, family group conferencing, reparative and accountability boards, and peacemaking circles bring victims, offenders, families and communities together with justice professionals in search of a different kind of justice. Restorative justice is a small, but rapidly growing, grassroots movement. With approximately 3% of the U.S. population currently under the supervision of the correctional system, it’s time to rethink how we achieve “justice for all.” By responding to the needs of victims, offenders, and communities, restorative justice offers hope for the future.

Want to learn more?

Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Criminal Justice. Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1990.

Michael Hadley, Ed. The Spiritual Roots of Restorative Justice. New York: SUNY Press, 2001.

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