Reflections on Continuing the Conversation: Restorative Justice
By Patrick Nolan, Project Coordinator for the Minnesota Justice Research Center (MNJRC).
Patrick Nolan is the Project Coordinator for the Minnesota Justice Research Center. His work involves writing and research, as well as administrative and outreach support. The following is Patrick's reflection on a recent event the MNJRC hosted on the topic of restorative justice.
The use of the phrase “restorative justice” has steadily grown in popularity since its formal introduction in the late 1970s; by 2014 there were 250 times as many books on the topic as there were in the 1980s. Many use the term restorative justice colloquially in discussion around legal system reform. What exactly is restorative justice?
A definition is crucial, as it must come before any practical implementation. Therefore, we must ask: is restorative justice a practice, or a set of practices? Is it a value system or a legal system? Is it cultural or structural? Is it ancient or novel? Restorative justice is all these things, and the conversation which this article reflects upon demonstrated that there are numerous pathways towards restorative justice. Regardless of the specific form of restorative justice, there is one common feature: a movement towards, rather than away from unity.
Our current “justice” system is designed to punish, humiliate, brutalize, shame, and ostracize perpetrators of harm, a short-sighted approach to retribution that satisfies the punitive appetites of some and the political mandates of others. However, it serves no peace or healing upon those harmed nor those responsible for such harm (whom in so many cases have been harmed themselves).
Restorative justice practices, on the other hand, bring individuals together rather than driving them further apart, grounded in the notion that harm is not simply one violation against an individual, but an interwoven fabric of action that is felt throughout an entire community, and even an entire population. Just as this harm goes beyond the individual, so does the healing. Restorative justice is a communal means for addressing harm in ways which facilitate healing.
On Friday February 24th 2023, the Minnesota Justice Research Center (MNJRC) hosted a Continuing the Conversation series seminar to help facilitate a discussion that moved community members, organizers, and policymakers towards greater clarity about restorative justice, creating the space for dialogue, community, and ultimately investment. Despite the logistical challenge of pivoting last-minute to a virtual setting, the turnout and participation were a warm reflection of the principles of community that restorative justice relies upon.
The Conversation consisted of three panelists - dr. raj sethuraju Ph.D, Beau RaRa J.D., and Minnesota House Representative Sandra Feist - and over 50 community stakeholders. Traditionally, restorative justice has been practiced in circles, a shape much like the principles of restorative justice: non-sided, connected, and whole. Because circles have no sides, they effectively prevent opposition. Somewhere within the circle, a person who has caused harm (or who is supporting that person) will be sitting next to someone who has been impacted by such harm. This is of course the opposite landscape of the western judicial system (as well political system, by no coincidence) which situates the aggrieved on the other side of the room as the accused, at a separate table, made to never interact directly with each other. In restorative justice circles, the harm is addressed directly, the people involved tell their stories to each other, and the focus is on mending the disruption to the community rather than finding guilt and punishing an individual, which further
disrupts the community.
dr. raj is a professor studying punishment and a staunch advocate of restorative justice. dr. raj trains school staff, probation agents, community members, and justice personnel on restorative practices. dr. raj began our conversation by asking the group to turn their cameras on in an effort to create a connected community in dialogue, rather than a one-sided lecture, effectively turning observers into participant stakeholders. Though unable to have a physical circle, the ability to see, collectively, the entire mosaic of the beautiful faces of those in attendance felt connective in a way that Zoom calls do not typically tend to be. It was the first move towards demonstrating rather than simply informing us about restorative justice.
This connection was further amplified as dr. raj grounded us in the sacred space where we are all collectively, physically located and centered us in the sacred space where we are all individually, emotionally located. He reminded us that our physical space was stolen from its indigenous inhabitants - habitants who were not only stewards of this land, but also stewards of the original practices of restorative justice. This reminder was neither a political nor an inconsequential recognition. Rather, dr. raj brought our attention to a reality of harm so often ignored, reflecting a central tenet of the philosophy that upholds restorative justice: To find pathways to healing we must not turn away from unresolved harms, no matter how old they may be.
dr. raj left us with this wisdom following the conversation:
“Restorative practices have deep history and reservoirs. Continue to stay grounded and connected to your body and community. The practice will continue to thrive because you are involved, engaged and vocal.”
Growing from ancient wisdom in both the Americans and Africa, the origins of our modern restorative justice practices arose in North America and were initially designed to address the misconduct of youth (Aertsen et. al, 2015). These practices have since moved far beyond the borders of North America as well as beyond the realm of juvenile justice, being implemented internationally to address all manner of harm: dealing with problems in schools (Payne & Welch, 2015), creating healing after sexual violence (Marinari, 2021), corporate remediation (Schormair & Gerlach, 2020), family reunification (Daicoff, 2015 ), post-war reconciliation (Mutanda and Hendricks, 2022), and even in addressing the deteriorating relationships between athletes and anti-doping governmental bodies (Salm & Sefiha, 2023).
With the vast application of restorative justice, it was helpful to hear from poet and attorney Beau RaRa of The Legal Rights Center, to go over the central tenets which make restorative justice meaningful and effective. RaRa brings restorative justice practices into the legal realm through their work with youth, families, and communities. As the Youth Restorative Justice Initiative Lead, RaRa expands restorative justice options to their clients involved in the juvenile criminal legal system. RaRa’s work, like restorative justice more broadly, aims to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by intervening at crucial decision points that might otherwise initiate legal consequences for youth.
RaRa described the practice of restorative justice in this way:
“We must reclaim the word accountability and reclaim the word safety. These are principles that do not get to be defined by the carceral state, they belong to the community. Restorative justice is cycle breaking, long term, and sustainable, all things that the current ‘justice system’ are not.”
RaRa also reminded us: “small is all.” This statement follows along two branches. First, small steps are needed to establish restorative justice in our communities. We cannot wait for large system transformation to begin implementing these practices. restorative justice circles or conferences are fundamentally communal. They are not programmatic but are relational, and can be passed down rather than instituted through state authority, so long as communities come to recognize and value their efficacy as a remedy for harm. We do not have to wait for system actors or state agents to initiate these practices. When harm happens, no matter the degree, and the parties are known and willing, communities can turn inwards to facilitate healing and justice rather than waiting idly for police and prosecutors to come separate individuals (and their corresponding families) further from each other.
The steering away from a reliance on use of the status quo retributive system of punishment gives communities an opportunity to not only deal with harm, but to foster the integration and cohesion of stronger communities; communities that are less susceptible to give rise to the alienating social conditions which produce crime in the first place.
In addition to small practices of restorative justice, Rara’s comment that “small is all” also applies to the importance of restorative justice values as applied in our personal relations. The small interactions matter because the principles of restorative justice are demonstrated in the minutia of interactions the same way that aggression and oppression often originate as micro-phenomena. We can begin to create room in our communities for RJ practices to flourish by creating environments of relationship through our regular connections with others, making efforts towards seeing each other with compassion.
However, even with the individuals of our communities operating in harmony, and addressing harm with collaborative, creative, and compassionate responses, restorative justice may not be able to have the reach and depth we hope for it, if its application does not begin to replace typical criminal legal responses as an acceptable, even desirable, approach. This requires a transition within the framework of law to create the possibility for RJ to be used consistently, and even normatively as a remedy for harm. This is where Representative Sandra Feist entered the conversation.
As the Vice Chair of the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, Representative Feist has already proposed two important bills that would move us further towards restorative justice as a structurally supported and financially resourced practice. Bill H.F. 46 (and its complement in the senate S.F. 55) establishes an “Office of Juvenile Restorative Justice” which would work with local steering committees to create restorative justice programs for youth around the state.. (This bill is on the Justice For All Legislative Agenda supported by the MNJRC.)
Additionally, Representative Feist has also authored H.F. 1712 and H.F. 1048 (accompanied by S.F. 1549 and S.F. 872 respectively) which create prevention and intervention services designed to divert youth from involvement in the criminal legal system and enable them an opportunity to reintegrate with their families and communities via various restorative justice practices. The intention towards prevention of system-involvement and reintegration in communities and families were very important issues for a number of the community stakeholders attending the conversation. Folks wanted to know how restorative justice operated as proactive rather than simply an alternatively reactive system of justice and how it would involve families into the process, addressing and supporting the individual youth as a whole, rather than just focusing on repairing the specific harm that was caused. In the Zoom Chat Representative Feist responded directly to these concerns, stating “HF 1712 would hopefully address [the issue of] expanding our lens to incorporate families.” Incorporating families into the process begins a process not only of healing, but of transformation in dynamics that have led to harm.
In this way, restorative Justice, especially through adequate investment in youth and reintegration of youth with their families and communities, prevents further harm. The research shows restorative justice is not just theoretical; it is empirically effective.
In a UK-based meta-analysis of various restorative justice vs criminal justice responses to a multitude of criminal offense types, Sherman et. al (2015) demonstrated restorative justice Conferences (circles) consistently and with statistical significance reduced recidivism, made victims experience less fear of revictimization, enabled victims to experience more satisfaction with the justice response, and were cost effective. Beau RaRa spoke to similar findings, citing a Legal Rights Center study that found youth who had gone through restorative justice circles following law enforcement contact were two and a half times less likely to reoffend in the next year. In another meta-analysis on the effectiveness of youth restorative justice, Wong et. al (2016) found results to be promising, albeit having their “legitimacy” potentially compromised by the lack of rigor and peer-review behind numerous studies’ methodology and venue of publication. These articulations provide us with impetus to continue implementing RJ practices, and to invest greater resources in researching their efficacy.
The conversation was not without contention. Representative Feist stated that one of the biggest challenges to implementing restorative justice Practices within a rigid and oppressive system is that it requires certain actors to abdicate their power, namely judges and prosecutors (but also police and other law enforcers). This is precisely why dr. raj had significant misgivings about pushing for an Office of Juvenile Restorative Justice and the funding through the Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee. Voicing a concern that such a politicized space was far too inclined towards redistributing funds in ways that facilitate more punishment and social control especially of black and brown bodies, dr. raj opposed using this committee as the pathway towards passing this bill, citing its history as antithetical to restorative justice values. Representative Feist acknowledged the obstacles, citing colleagues who believe the purpose of the current “justice” system is and should be almost entirely punitive.
Representative Feist explained that the Public Safety Committee, albeit not the ideal avenue for this project, is the only viable option to move the needle - and the budget - towards greater investment in restorative practices. dr. raj was adamant: “Public Safety is no place for Restorative Practices.”
This debate was thoughtful and had merit on both sides. Additionally, restorative justice practice happened following the discussion once the camera was turned off. After the community stakeholders had all exited the Zoom room, and the recording of the discussion was ended, several MNJRC staff along with the three panelists remained. Justin Terrell, Executive Director of the MNJRC, had proposed a “debrief.” This invitation, however, was really to participate in an ad hoc restorative justice circle addressing the contentious conversations. dr. raj spoke of his positivity and goodwill towards Representative Feist, who in turn reciprocated. It was clear that the matter was one of tension between ideas, and not people. But under conditions of human nature, and the emotional investment in the values we hold and the actions we take, it was reasonable to presume the interaction had the potential to disrupt a relationship. By bringing the parties together in a neutral and supportive community of peers, a practice and environment for addressing harm was created on the spot.
That process, of coming together to ensure our community remains whole, is precisely what restorative justice is. We must have these conversations if we are going to live in a world where Justice is collaborative rather than adversarial. In a statement following the panel and discussion, Representative Feist remarked,
“I appreciated the opportunity to discuss restorative justice at the historical, philosophical, applied, and legislative levels. Seeing how these all intersect helps inform my work in the legislature. I am always grateful for discussions with experts and advocates and aspire to incorporate their voices into the bills I introduce.”
Likewise, all of us here at the Minnesota Justice Research Centers are grateful for the efforts of those stakeholders, advocates, and experts who join us in continuing the conversation, and whose voices we join in re-imagining Justice.
If you are interested in restorative justice or any of the topics related to transforming the criminal legal system, check out the MNJRC resources page at mnjrc.orgIf you are interested in writing a blog post for the MNJRC, send us an email discussing the topic you would like to add your voice to at email@example.com.