Is there justice in restorative?

Following the recent 2nd Annual Conference of Restorative Justice Practices International I had the privilege of spending several days on Salt Spring Island off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia, with three experienced restorative justice practitioners who are former students of mine – Catherine Bargen, Aaron Lyons and Matthew Hartman.  Our conversations were wide-ranging while kayaking, hiking and hanging out.

Catherine Bargen, a long-time practitioner and visionary thinker, raised an important issue that deserves more discussion.  The rest of this entry is in her words, recorded and edited with her permission.

When I learned about restorative justice I felt that it applied to all of life and shouldn’t just be about criminal justice.  I’ve made a career of thinking outside the criminal justice box – for example, restorative justice in schools – and I continue to think the work being done in this field is very important.

More recently I became aware that there are all these other movements in restorative justice.  In fact, the voices seem to be most vibrant outside of criminal justice, like in schools; even environmental conservation officers and all kinds of groups like dispute resolution centers are really grabbing hold.  But they are saying,  “We’re not in the justice system, so let’s call it restorative practices and apply what we’ve learned from restorative justice to a new context.”

Restorative justice provides a gateway for people to look at the world through a new lens that goes far beyond criminal justice:  it applies to everyday life as we negotiate our social relationships.  We need to do it in all of life.  So in our enthusiasm – myself included – we have kept the word restorative and put it in front of much of the good work we are doing that involves people, repair and relationship building.

Suddenly I’ve had to step back and ask, “Why are we hanging on to the word ‘restorative’ and not the word ‘justice?‘  Is it important to keep the term restorative justice?  When we use the word restorative without the word justice, are we still talking about the same thing?”

I think that when many of us were introduced to restorative justice, we fell in love with the values and the amazing transformations we saw happening.  We then say, “Wow, this restorative justice is really onto something. There in action are the values I want to see in life.”

But if we attach the word restorative to all the good relationship-based work we are doing, if we start saying it’s about restorative “practices” and restorative “action,” I’m nervous  that we’re going to lose an important piece of what the movement could accomplish – which is focusing on justice issues.

Instead we’ll be taking these principles and doing great work but it may not have much to do with justice anymore.  Or we’ll be at risk of distilling restorative justice down to practices like victim offender mediation or circles; we’ll stop having a dialogue around “what is justice” and only discuss “what is restorative.”

It may be that it is easier to focus on restorative because it’s the nice value stuff but it’s harder to focus on justice because that may start to involve power issues.  And it might get personal:   where do we personally hold power and privilege, and how does justice and injustice show up in our own lives?  That’s harder to confront than, “How am I being restorative?”

If justice is about bringing fairness and right relationships into being, it often means that we have to give things up.  We have to give up privilege to bring justice into situations.  Many of us leading the restorative justice movement are privileged.  What about our own place in all this?  Where might we be ignoring the justice issues in our own lives?

I’m not accusing anyone or putting myself out of this.  It’s just that I don’t see that conversation happening very often anymore:   How am I living justly?  Where am I contributing to injustice in the way I treat people I’m around, in the systems I’m in?  In my relationship to the earth?  Those are all justice questions and I don’t see many of us asking these questions under a “restorative” as opposed to a “restorative justice” framework.

More questions need to be asked about how is it that we’re hanging onto the restorative language and not the justice language. I want to see people asking questions about what the justice piece is in all this – I’d like to see this question come back to the forefront of the movement.  Are we parting ways with the justice aspect?  How can we keep the justice aspect alive?

I don’t want to give the wrong impression.  I think people should continue to do the good work they are drawn to do, AND we need a serious discussion on what is restorative, what is justice,and  where we are going.  It’s time to check in with the vision.  The vision is widening and going in many directions—there are lots of good things about that, but let’s be clear about the implications and explore the possible consequences.

Below is Catherine’s choice of portrait from Salt Spring Island:

This is Catherine's choice of portrait from Salt Spring Island