Justice as restoration of trust

February 8th, 2011 by Howard Zehr in Key Principles

“Restorative justice is a bold and thought-provoking innovation that has engaged the energies and excited the hopes of criminal justice reformers throughout the world over the last several decades.  And yet, while it has achieved outstanding results in thousands of programs, it has remained a marginal development because it has failed to articulate a theory and set of practice applicable to serious crimes and adult offenders.  Unless it can do so, it may very well remain on the sidelines, ‘doomed to irrelevance and marginality.’”

In this paragraph, which opens the last chapter of his new book, Crime, Punishment and Restorative Justice:  From the Margins to the Mainstream, Ross London – a former judge, prosecutor and public defender turned professor – accurately summarizes the state of the field.  Fortunately, he argues, it need not and should not remain in this state.

What restorative justice offers, he says, is not so much new justice practices but a different view of crime and a new goal for justice: crime is seen as a source of harm that must be repaired.  Moreover, the essential harm of crime is the loss of trust, on both interpersonal and social levels.  What victims and communities need is to have their trust restored.  The essential obligation of offenders is to show that they are trustworthy.  The purpose of justice should be to encourage this process.

The overriding goal of justice, then, ought to be the restoration of trust.  The attempt to achieve this on both personal and social levels, he argues, can provide a unifying umbrella for our response to crime. Rather than replacing other, more traditional goals, it would become the overriding consideration in sentencing, providing rationales for and limits to the application of goals such as incapacitation and punishment.

London provides a comprehensive analysis and application of his argument, exploring its socio-biological basis and how it addresses the needs of victims, offenders and society as a whole.   He discusses the role of apology, forgiveness, restitution, rehabilitation, victim-offender dialogues and punishment within this framework.

Punishment alone, he argues, “is an extraordinarily poor way of restoring trust, either in an offender or in society.”  However, it has an important restorative role for individuals and society if it is limited, accepted as deserved, and part of a larger strategy aimed at the restoration of trust and relationships.

Having himself played key roles in criminal justice, he recognizes justice’s ritual elements.  Criminal justice is, by and large, a ritual of exclusion, “a form of symbolic degradation that strips the offender of his membership in the moral community….”  But justice also has the potential to become a ritual of inclusion and restoration.

London’s argument is much too complex to summarize here.   Instead, let me emphasize two major points.  First, loss of trust is the fundamental harm of crime, and restoration of trust is a basic need.  In my experience, this rings true in the lives of victims, offenders and communities.

Second, by identifying restoration of trust as the overarching goal of justice, we might be able to provide a realistic and comprehensive theory of sentencing, for all levels of crime.    With restoration of trust as the primary goal, we might be able to refocus and incorporate the other widely-embraced and more usual goals of justice.

“The restoration of trust approach integrates conventional sentencing theories under the new goal of repairing the harm of crime that applies to all cases,” not just so-called “minor” crimes and cooperative offenders.  In this way, restorative justice might move from the margins to the mainstream and realize the potential that it offers.

This is a book worth reading. My primary disappointment is the price; at a list price of $75, it will not get the audience it deserves.   Now that the book is out, I restate a suggestion that I made to Ross when I read an earlier draft:  that he make his essential argument available in shorter, more accessible form so that it can stimulate the kind of dialogue that it needs.

Crime, Punishment, and Restorative Justice is published by FirstForum Press, a division of Lynne Rienner Publishers (2011).