Cases that Should Not Be Referred to Restorative Justice

Generally, the conversation about which cases should not be referred to restorative justice quickly turns to the crimes considered more severe or complicated such as sexual assault, domestic violence, or murder. Practitioners and advocates have a wide range of opinions about where restorative justice should “draw the line” with some seeing it as only an appropriate response for minor offenses or juveniles and some seeing restorative justice as an appropriate option for any incident of harm in which responsibility is being taken, further harm can be avoided, and the involved parties would like to engage in a restorative process.

Personally, my own thinking on this debate hinges on one question: Whom would I deny the opportunity of restorative justice? If in any given case, the responsible and harmed parties feel that a restorative justice process would be helpful to their own healing journeys and that process can be carried out safely with the support of well-prepared facilitators, then I do not think anyone should be denied the option of restorative justice.

However, there are times that a restorative justice process is not an appropriate response and can end up causing additional harm to all involved. Generally, these are crimes that are considered less severe, involving minor misdemeanors and often juveniles. Referrals of cases like these are all too common in restorative justice programs across the United States and proceeding with these referrals risks causing further harm to those involved and may damage the public’s trust in the restorative justice movement as a whole.

When Restorative Justice Widens the Net

One category of cases that should not be referred to restorative justice are cases that “widen the net.” These are cases that would have otherwise been handled with a warning or through an internal community process, but because restorative justice is an option, end up becoming further entangled in the criminal justice system.

For example, I recently heard about a fight at a school involving two 13-year-olds that was referred to a community restorative justice program. This restorative justice program has the (very common) rule that if a responsible party reoffends at any point during the process, then the case will be referred back to the judge to go through the standard court procedure. The two students got in another fight after being referred (but before their restorative justice conference took place) so were referred back to the judge and became further entangled in the criminal justice system. This sort of case is much better handled by the community where it occurred, ideally through a restorative process within the school.

Another example is cases where otherwise issuing a warning would have been considered sufficient. Often these are cases with no specific impacted party and not a great deal of harm caused, so are not well-suited for a restorative justice process and instead run the risk of widening the net, ensnaring people in a complex and often harmful criminal justice system.

As restorative justice advocates, we need to shift the conversation about what types of cases are not appropriate for restorative justice. The true risk to the effectiveness, impact, and perceived legitimacy of our work is not in making the process available to survivors of sexual harm or other more severe crimes, but rather in offering restorative justice processes for so-called minor crimes where it risks causing further harm or system entanglement.

Of course, sometimes a seemingly minor case can have a significant impact on the individuals involved, in which case restorative justice may be a good option, though it should be carried out without the threat of criminal charges pending if the restorative justice process isn’t successful. For example, I once facilitated a case in which a young man had drunkenly sprayed a local business with a bottle of mustard in the middle of the night. This seemed like a relatively minor offense, but the owner of the shop lived upstairs and was watching him on her security camera. She had previously been the victim of arson, so when she saw him spraying the mustard, she thought it was lighter fluid and was terrified. Because of the significant emotional impact in this case, it was helpful and healing for the woman to meet the young man and also beneficial for the young man to hear about the true impact of his actions and to have a chance to apologize and work to make things right.

When an Incident-Specific Restorative Justice Process Can’t Meet the Need

Recently, a student mentioned that the restorative justice program he is working with had held a restorative justice process for a woman experiencing homelessness who had stolen a beer and a sandwich (totaling $9 of stolen merchandise) from a local grocery store. The police had been called, the woman was issued a summons, and the judge had then sent the case to restorative justice. The woman then went through a restorative justice process to discuss the impacts of stealing the items and how she could repair the harm caused.

This case highlights very starkly how restorative justice processes often fall short by failing to address the underlying causes and conditions that lead to crime. While stealing, of course, causes harm, the more pressing issue in this case is that the woman is homeless and in a position of needing to steal food. The harm that we should be considering first and foremost is the factors (whether they be racism, sexism, addiction, mental health, lack of educational or economic opportunity, etc. or any combination of these factors) that led to the overwhelming need at the root of this crime. The harm we need to be discussing and addressing is how we, as a society, as a human community, have failed and are continuing to fail this person.

When restorative justice processes focus solely on the harm caused by the crime (in this case, the theft) and don’t address the root issue or repair the fundamental harm that led to the crime taking place, we cause further harm to the responsible party by failing to hear, honor, and work to repair the harm they have experienced. We also significantly hinder the transformative and revolutionary possibility of restorative approaches.  

As restorative justice practitioners, we need to be shaping processes that not only discuss the harm caused by the crime, but also the harm experienced by the responsible party that led to the wrongdoing and how that harm may be repaired. Furthermore, we need to design restorative processes that will help our community to proactively address these needs. If we wish to truly transform the justice system, we need to actively push for greater systemic change and for processes that address the root causes of crime as found in racism, sexism, and lack of educational and economic opportunity. We do more damage when we put these cases through an incident-specific restorative justice process and discuss the individual’s behavior rather than their fundamental needs and how those needs can be met.

In my mind, these are the more pressing considerations in the discussion about which cases should and should not be referred to restorative justice.

As School Contracts with Police are Called into Question, Consider Restorative Justice

We are in a time of immense change in our country and one thing that is being reconsidered is the role of police and punitive sanctions more broadly in schools. Research has shown that the presence of police and punitive sanctions in schools often drives students —particularly minority and poor students—out of school, resulting in a “school-to-prison” pipeline (Losen 2015).

Restorative justice is a non-punitive and relationship-based approach to responding to misbehavior and harm that encourages accountability and the reparation of relationships. It also works proactively to generate a positive school climate where students feel safe, respected, and heard. This translates into a myriad of positive outcomes for students and teachers alike.

A 2020 study summarizing the most recent two decades of quantitative studies regarding the effectiveness of restorative justice in schools found that restorative justice implementation has the following impacts (Darling-Hammond et al 2020).

  • A decrease in harmful behaviors (i.e. violence).
  • A decrease in exclusionary discipline (i.e. suspensions and expulsions). Exclusionary discipline is associated with a large range of negative outcomes for students including dropping out of school and being incarcerated, so a decrease in exclusionary discipline results in other improved outcomes for students.
  • A decrease in suspensions of Black, Latinx, low-income, and special needs students.
  • A lower rate of recidivism.
  • A reduction in the racial discipline gap.
  • Increased attendance.
  • Increased graduation rates.
  • Improved school climate.
  • Increased social-emotional growth and position development of students.
  • Higher levels of school connectedness and positive peer relations.
  • Increase in students’ feelings of safety.

I strongly urge school districts around the country to consider implementing a comprehensive restorative justice program to ensure school safety and improve students’ experiences of school climate and feelings of belonging.


Darling-Hammond, S., Fronius, T. A., Sutherland, H., Guckenburg, S., Petrosino, A., & Hurley, N. (2020). “Effectiveness of Restorative Justice in US K-12 Schools: A Review of Quantitative Research.” Contemporary School Psychology.

Losen, D. (Ed.). (2015). Closing the school discipline gap: equitable remedies for excessive exclusion. Teachers College Press.

Restorative Practices and the Elevation of Women’s Voices

If there is one thing that I think would make a significant positive difference in the trajectory of life on this planet, it is the elevation of marginalized voices including racial minorities, the economically disenfranchised, and women.

It is important that these voices are heard not only for the principle of equal voice and the respect it communicates, but also because these voices offer much needed perspectives and priorities capable of shifting policies and resource allocation for the betterment of humankind.

Women, for example, tend to identify different things as problems and are more likely to think about the needs of families, children, and how we can care for those who have least in our society.[1] This critical perspective is often lost because women’s voices are not heard.

A recent book titled The Silent Sex by Christopher Karpowitz and Tali Mendelberg shares the results of a study looking at how different group compositions and decision-making protocols impacted how often women’s voices are heard. For the study, the researchers established groups of five people with varying compositions of men and women. The groups were asked to split their collective earnings and to determine how economic redistribution should work in society at large.

Half of the groups were told to decide by majority rule (representing the most common protocol decision-making bodies use). In these groups, the researchers observed the behaviors that are all too familiar to women who have been part of group conversations in the workplace and elsewhere. There was dramatically unequal talking time between men and women. It took not just a female majority, but a supermajority (meaning four out of five) for women to have proportionate talking time to men. Outnumbered women in the study spoke at best, three-quarters of the amount of time a man spoke and on average, women spoke two-thirds as much as a man.

The women in these groups were also routinely interrupted, and most of these interruptions were negative, meaning the interjections were discouraging, things like “I don’t think so” or “That’s not right.” In the groups that had one woman alone with four men, 70 percent of the interruptions she received were negative. When there were four women in the room and only one man, men become less aggressive and only 20 percent of the interruptions were negative.

Shifting from Majority Rule to Unanimity Rule

What is interesting about this study is what happened to the other half of the groups. These groups were told to make their decision by unanimity rule.

The results were astounding.

  • Female talking time increased for women in the minority. A lone woman participated nearly as much as a man.
  • Unanimity rule significantly increased positive interruptions—interjections that affirm and validate, like “Yeah” and “I agree.” Such positive interruptions tripled for women in the minority.
  • The influence gap narrowed for a lone woman. She had almost as much of a shot as a man at being voted the most influential member by her group.

As Karpowitz explains, “Unanimity rule sends the message that everybody’s voice matters.” This empowers women’s voices and allows us all to benefit from the perspectives, experiences, and knowledge they bring to the group.

This finding is particularly interesting from the perspective of restorative practices. In restorative practices, all agreement outcomes are decided unanimously. The group discusses the needs of the individuals involved, what would repair the harm caused, and employs creativity in addressing those needs, until they reach a specific list of actions that all participants agree would work to make things right. In restorative processes, we see how this reliance on unanimity rule ensures equal voice and respectful communication.

The demonstrated successes of the unanimity rule approach in restorative practices and the specific structures that make this protocol successful (such as the circle) may have applicability in other areas of social life. What would a restorative approach to politics look like? Could more emphasis on unanimity rule mean less hostile partisan divides, more compromise, more respect, more compassionate policies, and more women in leadership?

[1] Rogers, Brittany. “When Women Speak.” BYU Magazine, 2020.

Q&A Facilitating Circles Online

Question: I want to continue to hold circles with my students/staff during this time of social distancing. I feel we need the connection now more than ever! How can I facilitate a circle through video chat without the ability to actually sit in a circle together or pass a talking piece?

Answer: I agree! Cultivating meaningful connections is more important now than ever before. Luckily, there are a number of things you can do to adapt the circle process to the online format. Here are a few things to consider.

  1. Rather than passing one talking piece around the circle, each person can bring their own talking piece to hold when they share. Giving each person the chance to share their talking piece and why they selected it is another opportunity for relationship building. 
  2. Because you aren’t sitting in a circle, it isn’t automatically clear whose turn it is to speak next. You can address this issue by drawing a circle ahead of time and placing the names of participants around the circle. Share the image with the participants before the process so that they know the speaking order. Or, you can also ask each person to say the name of the person they are “passing” the talking piece to after they share. 
  3. You may need to add additional norms or ground rules such as to “mute” when you aren’t speaking, how to indicate that you are “passing” the talking piece without sharing, and what to do when kids, pets, etc. show up in the process. 

For an example of an online circle plan with processes and norms specific to the online context, check out this resource from Loyola University Chicago School of Law or this guide for a virtual circle of support in response to social distancing from Kay Pranis. 

I would love to hear the other solutions readers have identified for facilitating circles online. Please share your ideas


Strengths-Based Restorative Justice Agreements: Using Art to Make Things Right

Restorative justice practitioners place a great deal of emphasis on being strengths-based. This means identifying and supporting an individual’s assets: the positive passions, skills, interests, and connections that make them unique.

Taking the time to identify these strengths with participants has many benefits. It helps to combat feelings of stigmatizing shame by showing that you see the individual as a full person, not just through the lens of the one harmful event you are discussing. It also helps participants to see and appreciate their own strengths, which has a great impact on their perception of self and often positively impacts their future behavior. Knowing participant’s strengths and interests also allows for asset-based agreement ideas to emerge. How can a responsible party use their strengths to repair harm and make things right?

Often, participants strengths include creative talents such as art, writing, music, or performance. This can result in some outstanding contract items as responsible parties draw on those strengths to repair harm.

One teenage responsible party worked towards his aspiration to become a rap artist while repairing the harm from his offense. He created a 4-verse rap that encouraged others to stay out of trouble. Here’s the first verse:

When you get involved with beer, some may begin to cheer. Now dear.

Under the influence you will feel fear, but you’ve gotta have the mind gear, when it comes near.

But things might begin to look sincere, put it all away with smear and dance to this snare.

Instead, let it get through to you like a spear, and shape of a sphere, but you control your own life so put it in clutch and steer.

You become sad and stare, pouring tears. But once it is all clear, it seems like that is the time everything good to you disappears.

You can struggle getting a career, can’t even be a cashier, and a lot of kids get in trouble with the law each year.

We’ve got to form a frontier, to be at the level of premier.

Another young responsible party wrote a children’s book on chinchilla care to repair the harm from an animal abuse case. The last paragraph said:

Now you know how to care for your little fluffy ball.

If you have any questions, just give your vet a call.

Please love your chinny and they will love you.

These sweet gentle animals need a mommy or daddy and that can be you!

A young adult was referred for spray painting a public building with politically charged messages. One of his contract items was to express what he was trying to express through graffiti in his slam poetry. He recorded a video of himself performing his slam poem and posted it online.

A young mother struggling with guilt chose to explore her artistic talents as a way of repairing harm to herself and expressing her love for her child.


These artistic contract items allow responsible parties to reflect on the experience, repair harm, and also grow their own strengths and talents.

Are you looking for ways to practice encouraging greater creativity in ideas for repairing harm? Check out the game Out of the Box at

Tips and Tricks for Maintaining Facilitator Neutrality in Pre-Conferences

The pre-conference is, in many ways, the most important part of the restorative justice process. A bad conference, more often than not, is the fault of poor pre-conferencing.

Pre-conferencing refers to the individual meetings that the facilitators hold with the responsible party and harmed party and their respective support people prior to bringing the parties together for the restorative justice conference. During the pre-conference, the facilitators hear the story of what happened from each participant, seek to understand the impacts or harms that have been experienced, and support each party in identifying their current needs and what would begin to repair the harm. It is also an important time for the facilitators to build relationship and trust with participants. These feelings of trust will ensure that each party feels comfortable engaging fully in the process, knowing that they are safe and that the ground rules that ensure respectful conversation will be upheld. The pre-conference is also a chance for the facilitators to explain the restorative justice process in greater detail and answer any questions and discuss any concerns the participants may have.

It is important to the success of the process for restorative justice facilitators to be neutral. All participants must feel equally supported and heard. If one party feels that a facilitator is “taking the side” of another participant, it won’t be possible to build the trust and sense of safety necessary for the process to be successful.

Maintaining this neutrality can be difficult during the pre-conference phase. During the pre-conferences, the facilitators are having individual conversations with each participant, hearing and empathizing with their account of what happened.

Many of the things that you would say to a friend when hearing their account of a painful experience in order to support them are not appropriate in the role of facilitator.

For example, as a friend hearing the story, you might say:

“Wow. I can’t believe he did that.”

“What was she thinking?”

“Oh my god! That is horrible!”

“You’re right. It totally sounds like an overreaction.”

These affirmations can feel like a good way to build relationship and trust with each party, but ultimately will compromise your neutrality in the process.

On the other side of the coin, sometimes facilitator feel a desire to correct what they are hearing from one party in an effort to open up the possibility of the parties seeing each other’s views and moving towards reconciliation.

For example, a facilitator trying to correct might say:

“Have you considered what he might have been going through at the time that led him to commit this crime?”

“Well yes, but this was especially hard for her because of her divorce and the custody battle.”

“Keep an open mind. He is a really good guy.”

Often, as a facilitator, you will have information about what one party was going through, what led to the crime, or what their experience was like that you know will ultimately be helpful for the other participants to hear. However, it is not your responsibility to share that information or to attempt to humanize the parties to each other during the pre-conference. That healing and transformation will take place during the conference so long as you build the necessary trust and understanding of the process during the pre-conference and gain a good understanding of the open-ended questions you will need to ask during the conference in order to help each party hear the story and perspective of the others.

So, what can you say instead?

The underlying need here is to show the responsible party, harmed party, or support person you are talking with that you are listening deeply and that you care. Feeling heard is a great way to build trust and facilitate further open communication.

Here are a few ways to help participants feel heard during the pre-conference without compromising your neutrality as facilitator.

Use Reflective Statements

A reflective statement is a statement that reflects the content, emotion, and/or meaning of what the speaker has shared. It is a great way to show you are listening and to give the other person a chance to clarify if there is a misunderstanding.

Here is an example:

Speaker says: “Ever since then, things with my mom really aren’t good. Like, she doesn’t trust me to hang out with my friend or do anything, so we fight a lot.”

Reflective Statement: “It sounds like the damaged trust with your mom is really impacting your relationship with her.”

Using a reflective statement allows you to build trust and relationship through demonstrating that you are listening and care about their experience and emotions without sharing a personal opinion or judgement of the situation. Reflective statements also often prompt the other party to share more about their story or experience, so can often be used instead of another follow-up question.

Would you like to practice making reflective statements? Check out the activities Mirror Mirror and Shovel Face on

Ask Open-Ended Follow-Up Questions

The best way to show you care and to build relationship is to show that you want to listen to someone and care to learn more about their experience. They best way to do this is through asking questions! The best questions are open-ended (can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”).

Try using:

  • What…?
  • How…?
  • Why…?
  • Tell me more about…

On, there are several great games and activities that will help you practice forming good open-ended questions on the spot. Check out Curiosity Did Not Harm the Cat and Shovel Face.

Seek to Understand their Needs and Reflect those Needs

A central goal of the restorative justice process is identifying needs. What unmet needs led to the harmful behavior and how could those need be met in a way that does not cause harm? What needs have arisen from the offense? As you ask open-ended questions and make reflective statements, listen for the speaker’s needs and reflect them back. It will help participants to feel heard and to identify their own needs moving forward.

For a great conceptual model for understanding needs, check out the Māori framework for health and wellbeing, Te Whare Tapa Whā. Build the House is a great activity for exploring this framework and can be found at

Restorative Justice and #MeToo

The New York Times recently published an opinion piece titled #MeToo Doesn’t Always Have to Mean PrisonIt is an excellent article that highlights the benefits of making a restorative justice response available to those who have experienced sexual harm. As the article notes,

“#MeToo rightly emphasizes victims’ healing and accountability for the people who harmed them. All too often, the prosecutorial route achieves neither. Restorative justice may be a way to achieve both.”

I highly recommend reading the full article! There has been a great deal of discussion around restorative responses to sexual harm recently. As a facilitator, I have seen the positive impact a restorative justice process can have, for both the harmed party and the responsible party, in the wake of an assault. It is certainly not always the best response, and should be facilitated with the upmost care and responsiveness to the parties’ needs. However, when done well, it can provide a significant step towards healing and preventing further incidents of harm.

To give an idea of what this can look like, I wanted to share an old case study of a restorative justice response to a sexual assault in the university context. As always, all names and identifying details have been changed.

Type of process: Restorative Justice Conference

Conference Participants:

  • Impacted Party (Victim) – Cindy
  • Cindy’s Support Person- Amber
  • Responsibly Party (Offender) – Luke
  • Luke’s Support Person – Zane
  • Head of Hall – Ray
  • 2 Facilitators

Possible Criminal Charges: Sexual Assault

Referring agent: University Residential Life staff

Factual Synopsis: Luke sexually assaulted Cindy.


The use of restorative justice for cases of sexual assault has been an area of ongoing debate within the field. Some practitioners feel that the power difference present in cases of sexual violence mean that it is unfit for a restorative justice response. In New Zealand, Project Restore has made great strides in adapting the restorative justice process to make it safe for those who have experienced sexual harm. In the US, the Campus PRISM Project is also doing great work promoting restorative initiatives to address sexual misconduct on university campuses. The use of restorative justice for cases of sexual violence has shown positive results, aiding in the healing journey of victims, increasing offender understanding and accountability for wrongdoing, and preventing reoccurrence.

Sexual violence is devastatingly prevalent, and many victims choose not to report incidents of sexual harm because the investigation and court process can cause so much additional harm. Additionally, because it is often people known to the victim who commit sexual violence, some victims may be reluctant to report the crime. They often do not want to the offender to suffer the punitive consequences that may negatively impact the rest of his/her life. Particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement, there is growing support for the option of restorative justice to be made available to victims of sexual violence. For some victims, what they really want after an experience of sexual assault is for the offender to know how they were affected and for it to never happen again to them or other women.

It was the second week of the university school year when Cindy came back to the residential hall from drinking with her friends. She did not want to go to sleep yet and her friend Luke invited her to come hang out in his room. They sat down on his bed. Luke was sober and Cindy was highly intoxicated. Eventually, Luke started touching Cindy underneath her underwear. Cindy said it took her a moment to realize what was happening, but once she did she got up and left the room. The next morning, Luke texted Cindy to say he was sorry if anything happened last night that she didn’t want to happen.

Cindy tried to put the incident out of her head over the coming weeks, but it weighed on her. She struggled with depression and self-harming and found it hard to focus. She had seen a counselor, but still was struggling to heal. She avoided Luke in the hall, but lived in fear of running into him. It was in conversation with a friend weeks later that she realized that what had happened to her was sexual assault. Her friend, Amber, encouraged her to tell the RA what happened. The RA then reported the incident to the Head of Hall, Ray.

When the Head of Hall met with Cindy, they talked through what happened and her options moving forward. They could contact the police and file charges against Luke for sexual assault. Cindy did not want to do that, she expressed that what she really wanted was for Luke to know how awful it had been for her and to make sure he never did it again. Ray explained the restorative justice option and Cindy said she would like to meet with the facilitators to learn more. Ray also met with Luke, who said he would be willing to participate in the restorative justice process. In the mean time, Ray moved Luke onto another far away floor so that Cindy wouldn’t have to worry about seeing him.

Cindy’s friend Amber came with her to meet with my co-facilitator and I. They told us the story of what happened and Cindy shook and cried, saying again that she just needed Luke to know how much what he had done had affected her. Amber was very angry with Luke and said she had often felt like hurting him when she saw him. More than anything, she wanted her friend to feel better. After hearing the story and the devastating effect the assault had on her life, we explained in detail what a restorative justice process would look like and answered Cindy’s questions. In the end, Cindy decided that she wanted to go forward with the process.

Luke came to the pre-conference with a new friend, Zane, as his support. Many of his friends from the first few weeks of the year had been unwilling to talk with him since word of what he had done to Cindy had spread. Luke was suffering from what many perpetrators of sexual assault are experiencing in the #MeToo era; he had been exiled for his behavior.

There is, I think, a natural urge to exile someone who has caused this sort of harm. It is part of how we have traditionally expressed that we find a behavior abhorrent and will not tolerate it in our community. In a tight community like a residential hall, it is also likely a way of showing the victim that she is loved and cared for, even if the exile isn’t what she wanted. It is an incredibly positive thing that in the #MeToo era, more and more stories of sexual assault are being told. Increasingly though, it is clear that if we were to continue exiling the men who have committed sexual violence, we would soon have very few left. We need to find a way to pursue justice, while also prioritizing healing and reintegrating for all parties, and above all else, educating men about consent and shifting cultural narratives and gender roles so that they encourage respectful sexual relationships. We also need to fix porn. Particularly in the university context, it is increasingly apparent to me how many of men’s dangerous views and behaviors in regards to sex may originate in the portrayal of sex in porn, which is rarely consensual, and often one of their only sources of information. Rarely do boys and young men have the opportunity for honest, open conversation about how to be respectful sexual partners.

The impulse to exile also causes significant harm to the offender. Luke said that since the word had spread about what he did to Cindy, he had been severely depressed and had considered suicide. He said again and again that what he had done is not who he is or who he wants to be. He spoke about how he wished he could take back that night, how he couldn’t believe what he had done. We arranged for Luke to meet a couple times with a counselor before moving forward with the restorative justice meeting so that he could work through some of the pain he had experienced and be ready to hear how Cindy had been affected. After a few meetings, we spoke with Luke again and he said he was ready to move forward.

When we brought Cindy, Luke, Amber, Zane and Ray together for the restorative justice conference, there was a feeling of extreme tension and nervousness in the air. Luke was very remorseful as he told the story of what had happened, but it was clear that he didn’t understand the full impact his actions had on Cindy. Cindy cried as she spoke about her experience that night and her struggles since then, letting it all out. Amber spoke about her anger with Luke and how she felt scared when she heard about him texting another girl who was also a friend of hers. In one powerful moment, Luke explained that he was only texting that girl because he had been worried about her getting home safe because she was walking around late at night alone. Cindy interrupted him crying as she said, “So you were worried about the exact same thing happening to her that you did to me? … We don’t need you to walk us home, women are fine by ourselves and we have each other.” The message was clear and powerful: women don’t need protection; all they need is for men to cease the violence against them and to treat them with respect.

The conversation about impacts continued for a long time. The participants had a chance to ask each other questions, to explain the extent of the devastation that had resulted from that night. There were many moments of silence as the powerful realizations that unfolded settled in. Luke apologized many times for what he had done and was visibly impacted by what he learned in the process.

When we moved to talk about ideas for repair, Cindy said she really had just wanted the apology and to move forward. She said she wanted Luke to feel like he could go to the dining hall and live his life, she didn’t want him exiled, though she also didn’t want to specifically interact with him in the future. They agreed to give each other space. Amber said she still felt a lot of anger, though it had lessened a bit, but was happy to do whatever Cindy needed. Ray suggested that Luke continue seeing the counselor to examine some of his thought patterns that had led to the assault. Ray also suggested that Luke read a book about consent and said that he would read it with him, so that they could meet each week to talk about the book and what they had learned. The whole circle agreed with these ideas and felt that it was a good way to ensure nothing like this happened again. Luke had also come with an apology letter for Cindy, which he gave her, saying that she could choose if she wanted to read it or not.

In the final circle, each participant expressed how grateful he or she was for the opportunity to talk through what happened and that they felt better moving forward. Comparing the feeling in the room to the beginning of the conference, there was still certainly a strain between the two parties, but there was a sense of a weight having been lifted. A significant step towards healing and repair had been taken.

Restorative justice will certainly not be the best option for every case of sexual assault, but it should be an option. Like Cindy, some victims will want and need the opportunity to talk directly to the person who harmed them, in a safe and controlled space, to make sure that person understands the full extent of the harm caused, and never does it again. It is a process that honors and respects the experiences of all participants, rather than tearing them apart and doubting them like often happens to victims in sexual assault trials. It is a process that can transform and reintegrate offenders, rather than exiling them. It is a process that pursues justice and healing in equal measure, and for all involved. It is a process with so much to give at this point in human history.

The Power of Restorative Justice Education

Learning about restorative justice changed my life. I remember vividly the first time I read The Little Book Restorative Justice when it was assigned in a Nonviolence class at Colorado College. I sat up in my dorm room bed underlining almost every line and drawing big stars in the margins. I was so excited to have found an alternative approach to justice that could work to create peace in the wake of harm in so many different contexts. It was the first time I had really asked myself, “What is justice? And how is it best achieved?” From that moment and the discussions in class that followed, my trajectory was set. I knew that I needed to do this work. I knew that I needed to be part of the restorative justice movement.

Restorative justice course offerings at universities are expanding, but not as quickly as they need to be. With each person who learns about restorative justice, we gain the insight of their unique life experiences and the creative applications of the restorative philosophy they may imagine.

Last month, I taught a Master’s level course on Restorative Justice at Boise State University. The students were all intelligent, compassionate individuals with backgrounds in mediation and conflict resolution. The class was a true pleasure to teach. This was the first time any of the students had engaged with restorative justice. To many, it was an entirely new concept. They were as excited as I was when I first learned about this powerful work.

Their primary assignment was to complete a reflection, applying the “Restorative Lens” to a situation in their lives. This could be an issue they were facing at work or in university, with family or friends, in a volunteer role, or anywhere else. They could also pick an issue from the news or a local problem. The students were asked to view the issue though the philosophical framework of restorative practices, focusing on the three restorative questions: 1) What happened? 2) Who was affected? 3) What is needed to repair the harm and make things right?

If possible/appropriate, in addition to thinking about the issue through a restorative lens, the students could also apply restorative practices to addressing the issue. I invited them to consider facilitating a Restorative Justice Conference or a Circle with the individuals involved.

In grading these assignments, it was wonderful to see how the students were applying restorative practices in their contexts and seeing great results. One of the students who works at a school was able to prevent a student from being suspended by offering a restorative process. Another student held a circle with two family members about a painful family matter and reflected that it was the first time she had really listened to her parent. One student who works at a homeless shelter was able to use the circle structure with residents at the shelter. Two people talked about using a restorative approach to resolving harms in their workplaces. The university ombudsman reflected on a past suspension of a student that still haunts him and imagined “What if?” restorative justice had been an option. He shared that this one course will change how he does his job.

Restorative justice education is powerful. When we share restorative justice with a group of passionate, driven, capable students in a way that is inspiring, interactive, and empowering, we begin a positive ripple of impact. In restorative justice, we talk a lot about the ripple of harm from an offense. In restorative justice education, we see a more positive and transformational ripple. In each person who learns about restorative practices, a seed in planted, and they carry the knowledge with them into all of their interactions and decisions in their work, personal life, and wider community. They become messengers, sharing restorative justice with more people. The ripples of restorative justice education are expansive and powerful.

Article on Sustained Restorative Dialogue Published in Contemporary Justice Review

I am very excited to have an article Amy Giles-Mitson and I wrote on the Sustained Restorative Dialogue process published in the Contemporary Justice Review. The Sustained Restorative Dialogue was an effort to apply restorative processes to addressing the broader culture that gives rise to sexual harm. Organizing and facilitating the dialogue was one of the most meaningful experiences of my professional career to date. I am very excited to get to share the development, implementation, and outcomes of the pilot more widely. Hopefully it is a process that can continue to be refined and adapted to create space for other important conversations.

You can find the article here. If you do not have access and are interested in reading it, please contact me and I will send you a copy.

If you would like to see an overview of feedback from participants in the Sustained Restorative Dialogue, check out this report.

Screen Shot 2019-12-10 at 3.03.35 PM

What is Restorative Justice?

The exact definition of restorative justice has been a source of great debate and remains contentious within the restorative justice field. Broadly speaking, two general conceptions of restorative justice have been put forth: a process conception and a values conception.[1]

The process conception sees restorative justice as, “a process that brings together all stakeholders affected by some harm that has been done… These stakeholders meet in a circle to discuss how they have been affected by the harm and come to some agreement as to what should be done to right any wrongs suffered.”[2] Some scholars have maintained that this process can take place in a range of contexts, including schools, workplaces, and other areas of civil society, while others see restorative justice strictly and solely as an alternative process for addressing crime. The most notable of these scholars is Kathleen Daly, who has asserted that restorative justice is a “justice mechanism.”[3]

“Restorative justice is a contemporary justice mechanism to address crime, disputes, and bounded community conflict. The mechanism is a meeting (or several meetings) of affected individuals, facilitated by one or more impartial people. Meetings can take place at all phases of the criminal process – prearrest, diversion from court, presentence, and postsentence – as well as for offending or conflicts not reported to police. Specific practices will vary, depending on context, but are guided by rules and procedures that align with what is appropriate in the context of the crime, dispute or bounded conflict.”

Kathleen Daly, “What Is Restorative Justice? Fresh Answers to a Vexed Question,” Victims & Offenders

In her analysis, Daly seeks to strip away the values and philosophical claims to look only at the process, a process that can be empirically studied and compared to other justice mechanisms.[4]

Proponents of the values conception argue that restorative justice represents a greater paradigm shift than that, a new way of thinking about our response to crime and conflict, with common principles and values as the unifying factor between different restorative justice modalities. Following that line of reasoning, Zehr has offered the following definition of restorative justice:

“Restorative justice is an approach to achieving justice that involves, to the extent possible, those who have stake in a specific offense or harm to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations in order to heal and put things as right as possible.”

Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice [5]

Rather than defining restorative justice as a specific process or procedure, this conception sees restorative justice as better defined by the approach to justice the process takes and the principles and values underlying this approach.

Gerry Johnstone and Daniel Van Ness refer to this as the “reparative conception” of restorative justice. In this view, restorative justice is defined by its assertion that the response to crime or conflict must seek to repair the harms resulting from the incident or bring about healing.[6] It is not solely the process or encounter, but rather this new way of understanding and approaching crime and conflict that is the defining feature of restorative justice.

Others take an even wider approach to the values definition of restorative justice, understanding it as a fundamentally different way of seeing the community as a whole, founded on common beliefs and a vision of a more ideal possible societal future. Johnstone and Van Ness refer to this definition of restorative justice as the “transformative conception.” In the transformative conception, humans are seen as fundamentally relational beings, connected to one another and to our environment.[7] It is the mission of the restorative movement to transform individuals and social structures to be in alignment with this more relational and connected worldview. Kay Pranis similarly identifies underlying beliefs or assumptions about the nature of the universe and its operation that she argues are at the base of restorative justice work. These beliefs include that there is a core human need to be in good relationships, that all humans are connected and interdependent, that wisdom resides in each person, and that justice is healing.[8] Johnstone asserts that, grounded in these beliefs, restorative justice operates as a wider social movement. This social movement seeks not only to transform the community’s response to crime, but also other aspects of contemporary society.[9]

In my view, both the process and the values conceptions of restorative justice are important and mutually reinforcing. Braithwaite and Strang note, “It is best to see restorative justice as involving a commitment to both restorative processes and restorative values.”[10] Restorative justice cannot be understood solely as a process or a “justice mechanism;” the greater social aspirations and distinct value system the movement has birthed plainly indicate the need for a more expansive understanding. Nor can the restorative social movement be adequately understood when separated from the processes by which the values are experienced.

Excerpt from Lindsey Pointer, Justice Performed: The Normative, Transformative, and Proleptic Dimensions of the Restorative Justice Ritual, PhD diss., Victoria University of Wellington, 2019. 

Screen Shot 2019-08-06 at 1.59.22 PM

[1] John Braithwaite and Heather Strang, “Introduction: Restorative Justice and Civil Society,” in Restorative Justice and Civil Society, ed. John Braithwaite and Heather Strang (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kathleen Daly, “What Is Restorative Justice? Fresh Answers to a Vexed Question,” Victims & Offenders  (2015): 13.

[4] Ibid., 14-15.

[5] Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice, Revised and Updated (New York: Good Books, 2015), 48.

[6] Gerry Johnstone and Daniel Van Ness, “The Meaning of Restorative Justice,” in Handbook of Restorative Justice, ed. Gerry Johnstone and Daniel Van Ness (Portland: Willan Publishing, 2007), 17.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Kay Pranis, “Restorative Values,” ibid., 65-66.

[9] Gerry Johnstone, “The Agendas of the Restorative Justice Movement,” in Restorative Justice: From Theory to Practice (Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, Volume 11), ed. Holly Ventura Miller (Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2008) 59.

[10] Braithwaite and Strang, “Introduction: Restorative Justice and Civil Society,” 2.