A needle for the restorative justice compass

September 28th, 2011 by Howard Zehr

In my last blog post I summarized Dorothy Vaandering’s concern that without an understanding of the term “justice,” restorative justice may be a compass without a needle. It is important not to lose the justice dimension in restorative approaches, she suggests, but we must not allow our understandings to be unduly limited by concepts such as fairness and a narrow adversarial focus that are associated with criminal justice.

Drawing upon Freire and Buber, she bases her understanding of justice on what it means to be human: “one in which justice is identified as honoring the inherent worth of all and enacted through relationships.” These two terms together – honor and relationships – provide a needle to guide restorative justice proponents and practitioners.

Analyzing the characterization of criminal justice included in The Little Book of Restorative Justice, she observes that what is at stake are these two concepts. The justice system tends to turn those who have caused harm into objects to be acted upon. By omission, those who have been harmed are assumed to have no significant needs. Restorative justice, on the other hand, recognizes that harm is done by and to human beings.

Injustice occurs when people are turned into objects through relationships. Justice occurs when people are honored through relationships.

So for Vaandering, what is needed in restorative justice is a concerned effort to remind us all of the following:

  • Justice is a call to recognize that all humans are worthy and to be honored.
  • Injustice occurs when people are objectified.
  • The term restorative justice becomes meaningful when it refers to restoring people to being honored as human.
So it is crucial that the terms “restorative” and “justice” be kept and paired together, but with a broader understanding of justice. Without this pairing, the field is functioning as a compass without a needle.
In practice, she argues that continually asking oneself these three questions can keep us on track:
  1. Am I measuring (i.e. judging, objectifying)?
  2. Am I honoring?
  3. What message am I sending?
She suggests a definition of restorative justice:
“RJ acknowledges justice as honoring the inherent worth of all and is enacted through relationship. As such it affects all social structures. When something occurs that undermines the well-being of some, RJ provides a space for dialogue so that the humanity of all involved and affected can be restored and each person can once again become a fully contributing member of the community of which they are a part.” (p. 324)

With this “lens,” restorative justice is not something from the outside, as a solution for others. It is a way of being for all of us.