Controversies Around Restorative Justice

Controversies Around RJ

Credit: Evan Bissell (

Restorative justice is a movement with traction. People are excited by it. They are volunteering in growing numbers to make it happen. Some people are even getting paid to do it, especially in schools, and usually through nonprofits like Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, Community Works, and the Insight Prison Project (all discussed in this issue). Marilyn Armour’s article sums up the progress so far.

Its practitioners say the movement’s innovative practices have immediate benefits and radical long-term potential.

There is hope, first, that it will keep young people and especially young people of color out of the criminal justice system, out of the school-to-prison pipeline. Once that is well under way, many believe that other visions will appear possible, all the way to the end of prisons as we know them and a reconception of the entire legal system (see Peter Gabel’s piece). Many hope this movement can also provide new ways of responding both to conflicts in general (Kay Pranis) and to the inherited oppressive structures of race and class (see Fania Davis’s piece and Denise Breton’s).

Restorative justice may be poised for a breakthrough into public awareness. It would be a boon for budget-cutting politicians and taxpayers if only the public could buy into it. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area it costs around $50,000 to run a juvenile offender through the justice system, not counting the cost of incarceration if there is to be any, versus about $4,500 for a restorative process that typically leaves the victim much more satisfied, the young person reintegrated into the community without even being charged with a crime and much less likely to reoffend, and many community members relieved and grateful. Multiply the criminal justice cost many times for adults locked away for years.

But the rub is, punishment is nowhere seen in this process—unless, when you have harmed someone, you consider listening to them express their pain to be punishment, rather than a chance to develop empathy for them, see yourself in a different light, and learn and change in whatever way you now perceive is needed. Some consider that process tougher even than receiving punishment. Others think it’s being “soft on crime.”

Can a justice movement not based on punishment grow fast enough to win at the ballot box, even in an über-liberal city? In September the New York Times noted that “Restorative justice has long had proponents in some corners of the criminal justice system, but it is now gaining prominence in an unlikely forum: the San Francisco district attorney’s race.” We go to press too soon to know the result.

Or will restorative justice appeal more to small-government and traditional-values conservatives? Some of its elements do appeal to the Right, others to reformist liberals, others to radicals, including prison abolitionists. Of course, there are also elements that each of these players may dislike or hate. And no one will resist it more than the prison-industrial complex and the politicians in its pockets.

How it is presented by the media will be critical, but perhaps not decisive: it is how well it works in practice, in those places innovative enough to fund it, that will likely be decisive.

How We Talk about Controversies

Most articles in this issue come from progressive and radical activists, scholars, lawyers, and teachers who are writing wholly from within the restorative justice movement. We are centering their voices because it is they who have both the strongest hope for the transformative power of the movement and the most practical understanding of how the vision of restorative justice can take shape on the ground.

While most restorative justice practitioners initially seem to present a unified front, there are certainly differences among them if you listen more closely. Some authors in this issue raise controversial issues within the movement directly, others by inference only.  If they criticize anyone, notice how gently they do so. The movement has only got where it has by its practitioners’ commitment to reach out to the humanity in the other, to listen, to suggest and not to judge. A South Asian Buddhist goes to a conservative Florida town to support white Christians in developing a groundbreaking restorative approach to plea bargaining in a murder case. A survivor of child abuse works with prisoners in San Quentin prison, most of them serving life sentences for violent crimes. These practitioners could not do their groundbreaking work if they allowed either left-wing or right-wing stereotypes of prosecutors, conservative Christians, or lifers to cloud their vision. That doesn’t mean that restorative practitioners are blind to the realities of power and white supremacy, the legacies of genocide and slavery, the depredations of profiteers, or the violence inherent in the structure of our prison system. But their whole practice is to reach across any divide and connect, empathically.

I am writing this article from a slightly different place, as a kind of sympathetic cartographer of the movement. I have felt drawn to restorative justice since first writing about it in Tikkun (September/October 2009) and have started to attend trainings in the field. So with one foot planted inside the restorative justice movement as a student and the other in more journalistic territory, I am hoping to offer a different perspective: a beginner’s bird’s-eye glance at some of the controversial issues both outside and within the movement, and at factors that may be enabling it to gather traction. I am offering this analysis not in a spirit of divisiveness but with the genuine hope that it will help readers who have never heard of the restorative justice movement to grasp the diversity of worldviews within it and understand where opposition and support are likely to arise. It is important for those within the movement to understand ways in which restorative justice is seen by individuals and groups from different places on the political spectrum, from conservative to moderate, and liberal to radical. ...

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David Belden, D.Phil (Oxford), has been a religious worker, agnostic countercultural collectivist, novelist, carpenter, college teacher, business writer, and managing editor of Tikkun (until this April). He is currently writing about and studying restorative justice.

Source Citation

Belden, David. 2012. Controversies Around Restorative Justice. Tikkun 27(1): 27.

tags: Justice & Prisons, Spiritual Politics, US Politics   
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