SPIRIT AND CONSCIENCE: Restorative justice: No one is an island, No one stands alone

In “Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime & Justice” (published in 1990), Howard Zehr writes that our current criminal justice system fails on three counts: It fails to deter crime, it fails to hold offenders accountable and it fails to meet the needs of victims.

The book opens with a scene depicting a violent crime. The reader can see how it was possible for that crime to occur; the reader can see how it was possible for the violence to escalate. Yet the offender is not excused and the victim is not blamed.

From there on, Zehr elaborates his vision of what justice could mean for the offender and the victim and how a more holistic sense of justice could deter crime. Drawing on practices and attitudes from Europe in the Middle Ages and biblical models, he defines restorative justice.

Restorative justice asks two essential questions: What does the victim need in order to recover power, autonomy and dignity? And, what does the offender need in order to make things right and to be restored into a right relationship with fellow human beings.

The victim must never be left out of the justice process. The victim is the first person who should be listened to, not the last. Restorative justice asks who has been harmed and where restitution needs to take place. It defines crime as an event where human beings have been harmed rather than an event in which the law has been broken. In order for offenders to be accountable they must have the support they need to be able to feel remorse and then be provided with the opportunity to make things right, as much as that is possible. Acknowledging ways in which offenders have been victimized in their lives restores them to a level of human dignity that allows them to feel guilt or remorse. Zehr argues that punishment and retribution keep people in the past and don’t allow them to go forward, to change and solve problems.

Zehr suggests the possibility that through restorative justice, governments and corporations can also be called to account for harms they have done to people, and be given the opportunity also to repent and make things right.

In the many reprintings of “Changing Lenses,” each with its respective appendix, Zehr modifies concepts, speaks to criticism and reconsiders ideas. His journey is anything but static.

Zehr’s experience as a minority student at Morehouse College, the historic African-American men’s college in Atlanta, Ga., his doctorate in the history of science and his work as an international photojournalist all contribute to his ever-developing concept of restorative justice. His writing is passionate but not fanatic, methodical but never boring. The book explains so much history not known by very many people—kind of like the other Howard Z. (Zinn). Zehr brings a wide range of cultural, historical and theological knowledge to his pursuit of true justice for all.

The only difficulty I see is that since our culture in the United States of America is not homogeneous, nor cohesive, but rather individualistic, alienated and polarized, it is hard to imagine restorative justice becoming the norm. But by applying principles of restorative justice, in community programs, for example, we might become a more homogeneous and cohesive, less alienated culture.

The need for restorative justice

I was called for jury duty in 1995. It changed my life. When it was over, social justice became my focus. A year later I started writing for Southside Pride, took a course at United Theological Seminary and became involved in the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP).

When I was placed on a six-person jury in a civil case, I was disturbed by the adversarial nature of the proceedings, that is, the certain win-lose outcome. The other distressing thing was the requirement that we, the jury in the civil case, decide one tiny fragment of the case without a lot of necessary information. Based on what we knew (which was hardly anything), we had to decide if a certain thing did or did not occur. We had no idea what would happen to the plaintiff or the defendant as a result of what we decided. It was like being in a large factory with lots of heavy machinery and a panel of buttons, one of which you are required to push without knowing what will happen when you do. I felt powerless.

During the question and answer period after the trial I asked the judge why this case hadn’t been settled in mediation. He said it had been attempted. Typically, according to “Changing Lenses,” civil cases focus on repairing harm that has been done, unlike criminal cases. In that respect, our case was particularly confusing, since it didn’t appear to us that any harm had even been done.

After the trial was over I said to one of the other jurors that cases should be solved by a tribal council, or something similar, where everyone could talk things through and come to a solution. It would be so much less fragmented and compartmentalized. In our particular case, in spite of no apparent damage, we knew there was definitely conflict. It was easy to speculate that class and race differences were involved, a factor that obviously makes justice in our non-homogeneous society especially difficult. I kept saying there should be a more humane, less adversarial approach. I was also talking about my commitment to nonviolence on all levels, which he thought was great but impractical. He said my ideas were “like a tiny drop of water in the ocean.”

At that point I knew vaguely about the work of Howard Zehr on issues that had to do with justice, but I hadn’t yet read his definitive book, the previously mentioned “Changing Lenses.” When Zehr came to Hamline University this past fall to receive a lifetime achievement award for his work in restorative justice, I finally did read it. I wanted to underline every sentence. I kept exclaiming, “That’s exactly it.” Apparently a lot of people have felt that way.

Wikepedia and a few other sources call Zehr (it rhymes with care) a “pioneer” in restorative justice. At first his work was a “drop of water in the ocean.” He started out as director of the first Victim/Offender Reconciliation program in the United States in the 1970s. Twelve books followed, some co-written with other writers; programs in restorative justice and books on the subject have multiplied 100-fold since then; and it has grown into a worldwide social movement. It was exciting to see the conference at Hamline, perhaps another little droplet in the ocean, where religious leaders, lawyers and judges explored the implementation of restorative justice. The many awards Zehr has received over the years confirm the widespread interest in and affirmation of the restorative justice mentality.

In his acceptance speech at Hamline, he said, “When I was writing “Changing Lenses” I often thought I would be a laughing stock. But I wasn’t, and I shouldn’t have been surprised. I think I was basically pulling together what everyone already knows. This is certainly true for people from many indigenous or traditional systems, but it is also true for most of us: People sometimes comment that they had many of the ideas that restorative justice incorporates but had never put them all together.”

This past July Zehr was in Japan, where the recently translated “Changing Lenses” has been widely circulated, for a two-week speaking tour in which he spoke every day to packed rooms. One of the days, a reporter attached himself to Zehr in the morning and asked questions all day long. There was significant press coverage of his tour. According to “Changing Lenses,” restorative justice principles are not at all alien to the Japanese justice system.

Since the first printing of “Changing Lenses” Zehr has come into contact with First Nations in Canada and Maoris in New Zealand, whose justice systems have a lot in common with what the book describes. Zehr continues to work with indigenous people to expand his understanding.

Restorative justice at home

There are many variations of restorative justice work going on in the Twin Cities at the present. There are many formats, such as panels, circles, conferencing and victim/offender reconciliation. There’s the Midtown Community Restorative Justice group, a program of Phillips Powderhorn Neighborhood Association. They organize panels to meet with clients 18 and older that are referred by the courts and offer an opportunity to make amends. Community members can be trained to sit on the panels. Cyndi Butler is the contact person at 612-728-7506 (Wed. & Fri.). Joan Vanhalla works in the Seward and Longfellow neighborhoods in a partnership youth restorative justice program. Restorative Justice is taught at the U of M, St. Thomas and Hamline, as well as many other colleges and universities, including Eastern Mennonite University, where Zehr is professor of restorative justice and co-director of the Center for Justice and Peace-Building.

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