Restorative or transformative justice?

March 10th, 2011 by Howard Zehr

Is restorative justice sufficiently transformative? Should the term be “transformative” rather than “restorative” justice? Are they different phenomena or are they one and the same?

This debate has been ongoing since the origin of the field. When trying to decide on a term in the 1980s, I considered the word transformative but rejected it as too ephemeral to communicate with real-world practitioners. But the term restorative, with its backward-looking connotations, has certainly had its limits.

Ruth Morris raised this issue frequently. She argued that both in concept and practice, restorative justice has been too limited. Bonnie Price Lofton, in her contribution to Critical Issues in Restorative Justice, made this argument as well. Restorative justice may be too backward-looking, seeking to restore something that is unattainable, undesirable or never existed. Like the criminal justice system itself, it may focus too narrowly on putting a band-aid on interpersonal relationships while neglecting underlying causes such as structural injustices.

Others have argued that restorative justice does indeed seek to transform unhealthy relationships and does pave the way for a larger social transformation.

The best piece I’ve seen that explores the relationship between these two terms is by M. Kay Harris in her chapter entitled “Transformative Justice: the transformation of restorative justice” in The Handbook of Restorative Justice edited by Dennis Sullivan and Larry Tift. Harris outlines four different perspectives that have been advocated in this debate:

  1. Restorative justice and transformative are two quite different perspectives.
  2. Restorative process aims at personal and and interpersonal transformation and can open spaces for social transformation.
  3. Restorative justice falls on a continuum between retributive and transformative justice.
  4. RJ and TJ are really the same things, properly understood. Restorative and transformative justice both aim at interpersonal as well as larger social transformation.

Personally, I would hope that #4 is true – that they really are the same thing – but I also know that in practice, this often is not the case. Thus positions 2-3 have validity. My own interest is not in staking out a position but rather in urging the field to be as transformative as possible. I am encouraged by the numerous examples people have shared with me of personal and interpersonal transformation through restorative justice. And, while restorative justice often seems to create awareness of larger social issues, unfortunately I hear fewer stories of true social transformation.

While I am least comfortable with position No. 1 – that they are quite different – I do find it useful to use this perspective for pedagogical purposes. As a class or training exercise, it is often enlightening to provide a case study, then divide participants into three groups. Each group is assigned to approach the case using one of the following three perspectives:

I. Retributive Approach

The incident is a violation of the policies, defined by rule breaking. Resolution involves looking at the incident, determining blame, and administering the consequences.

  • What rule has been broken?
  • Who is to blame?
  • What punishment do they deserve?

II. Restorative Approach

The incident is a violation of people and relationships. It creates obligations to make things right. Resolution involves looking at the harm caused by the incident: harm to the person(s) who were victimized, harm to the instigator/aggressor(s), and harm to the larger community and asks “How can this harm be repaired?”

  • Who has been hurt & what are their needs?
  • Who is obligated to address these needs?
  • Who has a “stake” in this situation & what is the process to involve them in making things right and preventing future occurrences?

III. Transformative Approach

The incident may have occurred as a result, in part, of unhealthy relationships and social systems. It creates obligations to build new or better relationships. This must happen not only at an individual level but at the level of social structures and institutional policies. Resolution involves changing wider social systems in ways that help to prevent the occurrence and re-occurrence of harmful incidents.

  • What social circumstances promoted the harmful behavior?
  • What structural similarities exist between this incident and others like it?
  • What measures could prevent future occurrences?

Usually the first group, “retributive justice,” gets done first. The transformative group is often last. This in itself leads to interesting discussions.

This exercise, which is adapted from a series of exercises designed by CJP graduate Dave Dyck, somewhat arbitrarily differentiates between the three perspectives but it can lead to interesting conversations about the relationships between them.