An overview of restorative justice

Restorative justice practices date back earlier than Hammurabi’s Code. They were used, in some shape or form, throughout history, in criminal justice capacities to facilitate restitution for violent crimes. There are many cultures over the globe that have been using restorative justice practices within their own communities for centuries.

Fast forward to mid-century America where the concept sprouted wings again. It’s resurgence in popularity can be attributed to the Mennonites of North America, several of whom developed foundational programs and published studies on the subject (see Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses–A New Focus for Crime and Justice, first published in 1990). Many of their restorative justice concepts evolved from the traditional customs of the First Nations people of Canada and the U.S., and the Maori of New Zealand.

What is restorative justice or restorative practices? Most definitions state basically the same thing: resolving conflicts by identifying and addressing the harm done to the victim and working with the offender, family and community to make reparations and “heal the harm,” then reintegrating the responsible party into their social setting. This is very much an old idea made new again, providing an alternative, restorative approach to justice as compared to the retributive justice system that we employ through our government.

Modern applications are used in prisons, communities, and faith-based organizations, but increasingly in school systems, where suspension and expulsions are disproportionately affecting African American male youth due to misguided “zero tolerance” policies. In a few groundbreaking school districts across the country, Restorative Justice practices have been modeled in schools and district-wide programs that hope to change the course of action when dealing with students who commit offenses. Schools that have dedicated programs implemented see significant declines in suspension and expulsion rates, bullying, disruptive behavior, and an increase in empathy, positive attitudes, social skills, and attendance.

These practices are carried out through conferences or circles, where students can share openly their grievances, conflicts, personal stories and issues they might be having at home, with their peers and a moderator. Having face to face interaction, explaining the emotions behind the conflicts, is what leads to a greater sense of empathy for their fellow students and for themselves. That is not to say that these practices are a cure-all. They will not always help in cases of mental illness, or particularly violent crimes. But Restorative Justice practices empower students to articulate their thoughts and feelings, and give them the social skills to address their concerns without resorting to aggression.

Students at Detroit’s Plymouth Educational Center start their day with circles as a preventative measure. Children connect with one another and their teachers, sharing their highs and lows. Airing these issues or concerns, and sharing positive experiences, early in the day helps them focus on learning, and avoiding conflicts by forming better relationships with their peers. When conflicts do arise, conferences are used to change the course of destructive behavior to reach positive outcomes. At Markham Middle School in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, conferencing was used to help an eighth grade student who was described as a “bully and a fighter” by Ayesha Brooks, the school’s physical education teacher. Frequent conferencing allowed Brooks to use affective statements- expressions of personal feelings, both positive and negative. Rather than scolding her, Brooks was able to convey how the student’s behavior made her, and other students, feel, thereby instilling empathy and transforming her behavior.

These school programs are most important in areas of economic depression, where students are fending for themselves, with few resources to improve their quality of life, and little incentive to even try. In communities where most children are living under the poverty line, or experiencing homelessness, even the smallest school infractions can lead to years of punitive action by schools, essentially stripping them of their right to an education, and feeding them into this “pipeline” to prison. Students inevitably spend more time out of school, due to suspensions, than they do in school. By implementing restorative practices at school, at an early age, children can gain the confidence and tools to resolve interpersonal and behavioral issues before they snowball into a path of destruction.

Of course, these Restorative Justice programs can only be made possible with trained staff and adequate funding. Most successful programs are financed by nonprofit groups, with additional support from Title IV and the U.S. Department of Education. We are slowly seeing the spread of this philosophy in educational systems throughout the country. With proven results on it’s side, restorative practices are gaining momentum as a reliable tool for halting the progression of impoverished students towards criminal activity and prison.


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