What is “justice”?
Take a few moments to think about that question. It is a word we use a lot. “Demand justice.” “Seek justice.” “Justice has been done.”
But what do we really mean when we use the word “justice”?
Often times, justice is understood as retributive harming: an eye for an eye. In the justice system, schools, workplaces, and internationally, we look to punish those who have violated rules or laws. Punishment involves responding to harm by causing reciprocal harm. This is often justified through the reasoning that it will deter future negative behavior. However, what researchers have found is that punishment, regardless of the context, results in feelings of stigmatizing shame on the part of those punished. This experience of shame leads those who have been punished to reject their rejecter (those in authority) and the rules of their rejecter’s system. Through this dynamic of shame, punishment actually often leads to an increase in future harmful behavior and an adversarial relationship between those who have caused harm and the people and system responsible for “doing justice.”
Restorative justice offers a shift in how we understand justice and the pursuit of justice. Rather than retribution, justice is understood as healing and the pursuit of respectful social relationships. Central to the restorative approach to justice making is the questions, “How can we respond to harm without causing further harm?” Restorative justice seeks to put things right for all involved, while also modeling peaceful and respectful behavior in the justice response and providing an opportunity for learning.
One of the best ways to understand this restorative shift in the concept and implementation of justice is to look at the questions asked. Whereas the punitive concept of justice focuses on violations of laws and appropriate punishment, restorative justice focuses on how the people involved have been affected and what can be done to make things right.
|The Restorative Shift|
|Punitive Justice Questions||Restorative Justice Questions|
|1. What rule/law was broken?||1. What happened?|
|2. Who did it?||2. Who was affected?|
|3. How should he/she be punished?||3. What can be done to repair the harm and make things right?|
Bring to mind a situation in your life where you have experienced an injustice. First, try applying the punitive justice questions. What are the outcomes? How are the relationships impacted? Next, try applying the restorative justice questions to the same situation. How did this shift in the questions you asked and the concept of justice you pursued change the situation? As you go through your day, try the same exercise with stories in the news and problems you encounter with your family, friends and colleagues. You will be amazed by the difference this shift can make!
Lindsey Pointer is a restorative practices facilitator, trainer and researcher and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Restorative Justice at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand with support from a Rotary Global Grant Scholarship and the Fulbright Program from the U.S. State Department.