Feminist Book Club blog contributors are working together to create posts as an “Educate & Activate” series. We will define a term or movement, provide historical context, and give you additional resources to learn more. We believe that an educated populace can be better activists, accomplices, and co-conspirators. It is important to note that these are meant to be brief descriptions and not inclusive or exhaustive of all resources. We urge you to continue being curious and continue learning more.
The Restorative Justice Network (RJN) defines restorative justice as “A response to wrongdoing that prioritizes repairing harm, to the extent possible, caused or revealed by the wrongful behavior. The stakeholders impacted most by the wrongdoing cooperatively decide how to repair victim harm, hold offenders accountable and strengthen the community’s relational health and safety.”
The RJN came to this definition after observing — over and over — the adverse impact that wrongdoing has not only on individuals but on the friends, family members, and wider community connected to both the perpetrator and victim of a crime.
I assume it’s not exactly shocking to you when I say that our criminal justice system is broken. At its heart, carceral justice is punitive rather than rehabilitative, failing to actually address the impact of a crime on its victims and on the community at large. Restorative justice is intended to be a much more effective alternative. Through restorative justice, its proponents hope to reach true healing for all parties.
The process of restorative justice can look different across the programs that practice it, and can also shift based upon the varying needs of those involved. But the RJN pinpoints three essential steps to the process: Encounter, Repair, and Transform.
The first step (Encounter) involves a facilitated meeting that brings together those most impacted by the crime so they can figure out, collectively, how to Repair the harm that was committed. That Repair should address both the victim’s need for healing and the offender’s need to make amends. By extension, it should also address the wider community’s need for a sense of safety. In finding a form of Repair that addresses all of these, the great hope is that Transformation will follow.
Because of the transformative nature of this type of justice, restorative justice is oftentimes conflated with transformative justice. In actuality, transformative justice builds upon restorative justice, seeking to address the social inequities and environmental factors that allow harm to be done in the first place.
According to Philly Stands Up!, transformative justice is an abolitionist approach that recognizes that “oppression is at the root of all forms of harm, abuse, and assault.” Because of this, the practice is meant to address and confront those oppressions on its path toward accountability and healing.
On the Transform Harm website, transformative and disability justice trainer Mia Mingus explains that transformative justice “seeks to respond to violence without creating more violence and/or engaging in harm reduction to lessen the violence.” In addition to eschewing reliance on carceral institutions, those who practice transformative justice “actively cultivate the things we know prevent violence such as healing, accountability, resilience, and safety for all involved.”
Getting back to restorative justice, the process aims to “get offenders to take responsibility for their actions, to understand the harm they have caused, to give them an opportunity to redeem themselves and to discourage them from causing further harm.”
Victims, meanwhile, find (hopefully) that by taking an active role in this process, their feelings of anxiety and powerlessness are reduced.
I like how professor John Braithwaite puts it in a paper on the topic: “With crime, restorative justice is about the idea that because crime hurts, justice should heal. It follows that conversations with those who have been hurt and with those who have inflicted the harm must be central to the process.”
The phrase “restorative justice” has appeared in written sources since the first half of the nineteenth century but, according to Restoring Justice, it was first introduced in its present usage by Albert Eglash, a psychologist who worked with incarcerated people. In 1977, he presented restorative justice as an alternative to retributive (punitive) and distributive (therapeutic) justice.
Criminologist Howard Zehr, considered by many to be a pioneer of restorative justice, has pointed out in his many books on the topic (some of which are collected in The Big Book of Restorative Justice, mentioned below) that the concept is rooted in indigenous practices of communal restitution and mediation, practiced in order to return a balance of power to all impacted parties. One example he gives is the practice of Utu, developed by the Maori in New Zealand. These practices are still in use within indigenous justice systems to this day.
The practice has found more widespread use in recent years thanks to the nonprofit organizations and academic centers that have embraced it.
Transformative justice, meanwhile, emerged in the late 1990s as an adaptation of restorative justice. Though — as is the case with restorative justice — it has been used by those who most needed it long before it became recognized by the larger population.
As Mingus writes on the Transform Harm website, “undocumented immigrant women in domestic violence relationships, disabled people who are being abused by their caretakers and attendants, sex workers who experience sexual assault or abuse, or poor children and youth of color who are surviving child sexual abuse have long been devising ways to reduce harm, stay alive and create safety and healing outside of state systems, whether or not these practices have been explicitly named as ‘transformative justice.'”
Further, the authors of the Transformative Justice Resource Compilation write that “the current iteration of transformative justice principles has a vague lineage based in communities of color, queer and trans communities, and groups visioning new justice practices rooted in equity and liberation. Outlining the lineage of these ideas helps us avoid appropriation. Naming that these concepts were articulated and initially explored by people of color and indigenous people, many of whom are queer or trans women, reminds us that racial justice and decolonization are core tenets of transformative justice.”
Resources for Further Education
Restorative justice first came onto my radar years ago when I read “Justice” by Mariame Kaba, a short story in The Feminist Utopia Project. I didn’t know the term “restorative justice” at the time, but I could already feel how the process described within the story might provide a better way.
My interest in both restorative and transformative justice has since grown thanks to my readings on abolition (most specifically Mariame Kaba’s We Do This ‘Til We Free Us) and the Defund the Police movement.
I finally decided we needed an Educate & Activate post after reading Alexandra Brodsky’s Sexual Justice. After all, conversations around these alternative forms of justice often come up when we interrogate the handling of those crimes in which justice seems most elusive.
To learn more about restorative justice (and transformative justice, for that matter), you should check out the following:
Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice by Howard Zehr
Handbook of Restorative Justice edited by Gerry Johnstone and Daniel W. Van Ness
The Big Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zehr, Allan MacRae, Kay Pranis, and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz
“What Is Restorative Justice (RJ)?” from the Correctional Service of Canada
This curated collection of links on restorative justice by The Marshall Project
“What Is Transformative Justice?” from the Barnard Center for Research on Women
Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
We Will Not Cancel Us by adrienne maree brown
The National Sexual Assault Coalition’s “Transformative Justice Resource Compilation”