Guest Post: Restoring Justice

SCOPE is partnering with the Peace Education and Action Center and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to start a community dialogue in three important areas:  Rethinking Education, Restoring Justice and Respecting Environment.  The Sarasota Herald-Tribune will publish guest editorials on each of the three areas, which will be crossposted on the SCOPE blog. On April 9th and 10th, the Peace Education and Action Center will host their second annual Teach Peace Conference with the same three focus areas.  We hope the dialogue that begins through these multiple channels  and the actions that result will bring about positive changes for our community.

The second installment is below.  We hope you will use the commenting space to continue a dialogue about how we can Restore Justice. Restorative justice offers a better way to cope with crime By Gordon Bazemore, director of the Community Justice Institute at Florida Atlantic University. E-mail: bazemor@fau.edu Published: Tuesday, March 30, 2010

If asked to define "justice," most Americans use words such as fairness, similar or equal treatment, absence of discrimination, enlightenment, due process and equal opportunity. Yet, when asked what is meant when we hear that someone has been "brought to justice," Americans inevitably think first of punishment -- often severe punishment -- that must serve as retribution for wrongdoing. We know that justice is a larger concept than punishment, yet we are mostly aware of a very limited set of choices about what justice means in response to crime.

It has been said that Americans are addicted to punishment. But it is more accurate to say that this addiction is characteristic of policymakers who run on "get tough on crime" platforms that seem to thrive on retribution. Crime makes us angry and afraid, but a number of surveys have shown that most of us want accountability for crimes rather than simply retribution. Of greatest concern is the fact that retributive justice is inherently offender-focused -- leaving crime victims on the sidelines of the justice process.

Restorative justice is a "new" way of responding to crime and harm based on ancient practices. For advocates of restorative justice, crime is more than simply lawbreaking. Rather, because crime harms individual victims, communities, offenders and relationships, "justice" cannot be achieved simply as punishment for the offender, or even by only providing treatment and services. Justice must therefore focus on repairing the harm crime causes, while ensuring accountability to those harmed by crime rather than to the state alone.

Although most of us are clearly taught to believe in the moral "rightness" of retribution, and to some degree in its effectiveness, there is no evidence to suggest that human beings are innately punitive. Indeed, most speculation is that in early human communal societies when someone was harmed by another person(s), the response was typically some form of group dialogue. This deliberation included consideration of responsibility for the act, discussion of the nature of the harm, and consideration of "accountability" based on obligations for the offender (and often his/her family) to make amends to those harmed -- rather than simply "taking the punishment."

In contrast to the view that punishment is an innately human trait, it seems more likely therefore that we are hardwired for reciprocity and social exchange. When we use the phrase "I owe you one" or "you owe me one," we generally imply an expectation to repay a debt or good deed that can "make things right" in a different way from individual revenge.

While revenge may be part of the human condition, it may be more accurate to say that it was collective state punishment, rather than restorative justice that was "invented" (for Anglo-European cultures at least) during the Middle Ages. Retributive punishment is therefore a more recent human "innovation" that essentially formalized the response to community and individual conflict resolution by designating theft and other offenses as "crimes" against the king (or the state).

Although more commonly employed in some eras and cultures (forms of restorative justice never disappeared in many indigenous societies), reparation and informal settlement processes, as well as formal and informal restitution and other reparative sanctions (e.g., community service) have nonetheless persisted at some level alongside retributive punishment throughout Western history.

In the past two decades, restorative justice has become a growing international movement. Indeed, restorative justice was the basis for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and even became part of post-genocide reconciliation in Rwanda. Restorative practices have also become popular in schools and universities as an alternative to suspension and expulsion.

While restorative justice led to new policy in a number of states and prompted statutory change in juvenile justice codes in 35, U.S. policymakers have clearly lagged the rest of the world, and restorative justice in many states (including Florida) is used only sporadically. The good news is that many citizens who learn about restorative justice support it, as well as many criminal justice decision makers -- including prosecutors, judges, public defenders, police officers and victims' advocates.

Read the guest editorial in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune here.  See the other SCOPE blog postings in this series here and here.