Is restorative justice a compass without a needle?

September 14th, 2011 by Howard Zehr in Key Principles

The field of restorative justice has been characterized by on-going discussions about how to define the term.  Some have argued that we should avoid definitions because of the rigidity they bring.  Others have claimed that ambiguity and uncertainty have led to confusion and bad practice.

Many have advised that we drop the term “justice” entirely. In a school context, for example, the “justice” word is often replaced by terms such as “practices” or “disciplines.”   Catherine Bargen, in her earlier guest blog, questions the wisdom of that, and her concerns are affirmed and expanded upon in an important new contribution by Dorothy Vaandering. (“A faithful compass:  rethinking the term restorative justice to find clarity.” Contemporary Justice Review, Vol 14, No. 3, Sept 2011, 307-328).

Vaandering’s research and experiences are in the realm of education, but she speaks to the field as a whole, warning that although it has offered a compass, the compass has been lacking a needle.

Overall, she worries that ambiguity about the meaning of the term has led to the field being discredited and also encouraged bad practice.  The fact that practice has moved ahead of theory from the beginning has been another source of confusion.  In addition, when the term “justice” is used, an over-emphasis on criminal justice models and applications has led to an undue focus on rights and fairness that has pulled the field off-course.

This is especially true in the educational context, where the word “justice” is often foreign and strengthens the tendency to see restorative approaches as add-ons to disciplinary processes that are basically judicial.  Also, a restorative “discipline” focus limits application to behavioral management, yet educators’ overall mandate is educational, not behavioral.

Vaandering helpfully revisits Gavrielides’ 5 fault lines, arguing that the lack of a clear understanding of both “justice” and “restorative” contributes to these misunderstandings and divisions.

1.  RJ as new paradigm or RJ as pragmatic, parallel approach

2. RJ as process vs RJ as outcome

3. RJ as mediation (only immediate stakeholders) or RJ as conferencing (involving a larger definition of stateholders)

4. RJ as coercive vs RJ as voluntary

5. RJ principles as flexible or RJ principles as inflexible.

The core of her exploration, Vaandering notes, are these questions:  What is justice?  What is being restored?  How can the term justice be used within various fields without eliciting connotations of crime (including its objectifying tendencies)?

The justice component of restorative justice must not be lost, Vaandering argues, and a clear understanding of the meaning of “justice” will not only clarify the “restorative” part but will  help address these fault lines.

What is really at stake, she concludes, is what it means to be human.  The compass is missing a needle.  That can be provided by a broader understanding of justice, one that explicitly acknowledges our humanity and what that implies.

In the next I entry I will summarize her proposal.

(Theo Gavrielides’ helpful study is available as a free pdf from this site.)