Restorative justice is often conceived as a philosophy and a set of practices, but also can be seen as a new global social movement.
While it is not an activist movement that includes organized campaigns and demonstrations, it does seem to galvanize "a set of opinions and beliefs in a population which represents preferences for changing some elements of the social structure.”1
Under this banner, restorative justice is part of the efforts to: end the death penalty and mass incarceration; promote racial justice and reconciliation of systemic and historical harms; disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline; and help individuals and societies rebuild lives and communities in the aftermath of serious trauma or harm.
A Shifting Narrative
Although in its modern state restorative justice is decades old, its origins emanate from Indigenous traditions that go back centuries.
Similarly, people of color in the U.S. have created, sought, and supported community-based spaces of healing and repair, in recognizing that the criminal legal system (and other systems rooted in racism) failed to meet their needs or were sources of harm in the community.
These foundations and contributions have long been unacknowledged, due to this country’s long history of racism. Despite recent efforts by the restorative justice community to right the racist wrongs of the past, change has been slow to come.
It is important that our definitions of restorative justice be expanded to be made more inclusive in practice and to embrace cultural humility.
The Modern Era of Restorative Justice
The emergence of formalized restorative practices in the U.S. criminal legal system is frequently attributed to Howard Zehr and his colleagues at the Mennonite Central Committee, who launched a Victim Offender Reconciliation Program in Elkhart, Indiana.
Kay Pranis’ work with the Minnesota Department of Corrections also played a key role in introducing circle processes as a core restorative practice in criminal justice and school-based settings.
A return to Indigenous Maori justice practices in New Zealand shaped the creation of community conferencing and family group decision-making models in the U.S.
Additionally, the Vermont Department of Corrections created community-based solutions for supporting reintegration that offset rising incarceration and recidivism through Reparative Probation and Circles of Support and Accountability.
Included in this global movement are variations of peacebuilding efforts, such as truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs), with the most famous being the South Africa TRC in the 1990s. The focus of these efforts has been to establish a formal public accounting of historical and widespread social injustices, such as apartheid.
In the U.S., two examples include the Greensboro TRC in 2004 and the Maine Wabanaki TRC in 2012. Today, restorative leaders like Fania Davis2 advocate for a nationwide TRC to address racial harm. The Northeastern University Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project conducts research on racialized violence between 1930 and 1970 and helps educate the public and police departments about this history.3
The Role of Faith Communities
Faith-based and Catholic institutions have been involved in this movement in big and small ways, with important contributions and calls to action articulated in the 2000 USCCB statement, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.
Continued and deepened engagement with restorative justice approaches not only answer the call of our faith, but strengthen a collective cultural shift away from punitive notions of justice.