Restorative justice and system change

May 2nd, 2013 by Howard Zehr in Critical Issues

Ross London, in his recent book, Crime, Punishment and Criminal Justice – From Margins to Mainstream, argues that much of the identity crisis of the RJ field has been caused by the misguided notion of a “paradigm shift” popularized by my colleague Howard Zehr, one of the founding voices in the RJ movement, in his 1990 book, Changing Lenses.

According to London, the concept of paradigm shifts (used originally by Thomas Kuhn in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) is misleading when applied to the RJ field in that it assumes a totalizing transformation from one whole system to another entirely different system of operation.  Compared to the scientific revolution, for example, this would be like the shift in the scientific understanding that the earth is round, not flat, or that the sun does not rotate around the world, but just the opposite.

As a realist, London maintains that the current criminal justice system is so deeply entrenched and has developed over such a long time that it would be impossible to make a complete shift in the systematic nature and substance of this institution. On top of this, London insists that the RJ movement does not contain the necessary infrastructural brevity of thought or practice to provide an alternative paradigm that could replace the comprehensive influence of the modern criminal justice system.

Indeed, London would argue that this kind of total overhaul of the justice-industrial-complex should not even be our goal. He insists that RJ has made minimal progress in transforming the CJ system precisely because it has pitted itself against the system. According to London, in contrast to this posture of resistance, if RJ would abandon the use of paradigmatic language and instead strategically work from the inside-out it would be much more successful in transforming the justice system.

In summary London’s conviction is this: RJ would be considerably more influential if it would seek to be mainstreamed into the whole justice system and refocus its energy on shifting justice system values and priorities in the direction of restoration from the inside-out.

London’s argument has a great deal of appeal if one reduces RJ to a simple subset of justice values and practice skills that has the power to re-direct the internal trajectory of the current system. However, if you believe that RJ, actually or potentially, represents a comprehensive paradigm that could radically replace the current system, then London’s proposal of working from within is not acceptable. Social movement theory argues that critical mass transformative “tipping points” have historically occurred only when advocates of change on the inside and agents of provocation on the outside  have collaborated to reinforce the undergoing transformative changing of a system.

Borrowing from work in the natural sciences (quantum physics & chaos theory) some of us in the justice and peacebuilding field have integrated the language of Human Systems Dynamics (HSD) or Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) theory to help understand the phenomena of structural transformation. Human Systems Dynamics tell us that in order to impact a complex emerging system that seems to be intractable (like the criminal justice system), we need to think laterally and ask a different set of questions.   For example, how do we change the containersthat hold the system in place? How do we change the differences in, and between, the various elemental components of the system? How do we change the forms and flows of exchange(reciprocities) between the relationships and structures that are currently occurring in and supportive of the system?

I am convinced that RJ as a social movement has the potential to move the current justice system into a process of monumental change. RJ as an ethical worldview, a corporate vision and as a practical strategy for national justice policy reform and practice has great potential to address all three points of change listed above.  It can provide alternative ways of doing and being that satisfy the requirements of true justice.


(Howard’s comments on Ross’ argument may be found in this earlier blog entry.)

Sources and references include the following:

Gladwell, M. (2000). The Tipping Point – How little Things can make a Big Difference.

Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Moyer, B. et al. (2001). Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements.

Ideas on HSD came from conversation with Dr. Glenda Eoyang, one of the founding voices in HSD. See this website for more resources.