Happy Restorative Justice Week!

Restorative Justice Week was initiated by Correctional Service Canada and has been celebrated since 1996. It’s now gaining international attention – time to call it International Restorative Justice Week!

We’ve come a long way. Let’s celebrate and reflect.

The first modern restorative process is attributed to the ‘Elmira case’ in 1974 in Kitchener, Canada. After two young men pled guilty to a vandalizing spree, probation officer, Mark Yantzi, and Mennonite Central Committee worker, Dave Worth, initiated this seemingly impossible, ‘pie in the sky’ idea of the offenders meeting their victims. Judge McConnell surprised them by allowing this to occur. The two youth met with 21 of the 22 victims and successfully worked out restitution. It inspired the development of Community Justice Initiatives and the practice called ‘victim offender reconciliation programs’.

One of the offenders, Russ Kelly, says: “Meeting our victims was one of the hardest things I had ever done in my entire life.”

Russ became an advocate and volunteer. He is the author of “From Scoundrel to Scholar… The Russ Kelly Story”.

Pioneers like these followed their awareness that something had to change and had the courage to try something radically different. For example, Barry Stuart was the Chief Judge of the Yukon Territorial Court when he chose to work with communities and justice officials to overcome the failings of adversarial based sentencing. He knew something more than ‘tinkering’ was required. He stepped off the bench, removed his robes and invited the community and other parties to sit in a circle. He blended principles of contemporary consensus processes and traditional circles to create a safe space for discussions among all participants affected by sentencing.

Stuart ended up setting legal precedent in Canada (R. v. Moses 1992). Initially called ‘sentencing circles’, he later coined the term ‘peacemaking circles’ to capture what was being created in practice in a multitude of settings.

There are many stories from around the world of individuals and communities creating new approaches to resolving issues in creative and generative ways. While we have come a long way in developing both theory and practice, we are still essentially pioneers.

I love this year’s theme: “Inspiring Innovation”.

We must be careful not to limit or stop the further development and unfolding of the restorative vision. Restorative justice is an umbrella term, with a variety of practices and programs that fall under it. Imposing one generic model or coming to conclusions of what restorative justice has to look like constrains its transformative potential and hampers its organic development.

Practitioners need the freedom to be innovative and responsive. It’s about aligning with restorative values and principles and collaboratively developing an appropriate process to fit each situation and cultural context, and to meet the needs of all parties. If we simply impose a generic model or program we become similar to the justice system in that we force the situation and parties into a pre-determined judicial process.

Like many others, I am concerned about how some restorative processes are focusing on expediency and reaching agreements without engaging with deeper transformational opportunities. There is a danger that time and attention are not given to values and relationships when we focus too quickly on achieving outcomes. Harm needs to be understood and addressed within the relational realm.

Dr. Theo Gavrielides wrote a paper for this year’s free resource kit entitled “Five ways to kill innovation for restorative justice”, and he has warned against the “The McDonaldisation of a community-born and community-led ethos”.

We need to continue to ask questions about the development of restorative justice and its relationship to current legal systems.

One of the gifts of restorative justice is that it is dynamic and invites us to continually engage with individuals, groups, organizations and communities to co-create ways that best meet everyone’s needs and resolves the issues at hand in a generative way.

I use the term restorative justice in a broad transformative sense because the vision of restorative justice is transformation. Transformation is multi-faceted, applying to how we perceive and respond to conflict and crime; how individuals, communities and governments engage; the possibilities of outcomes; and changes to current structures like the justice system itself.

Restorative justice is poised to make a significant contribution to the broader paradigm shift occurring in the world. There is also the possibility that it will be co-opted or subsumed by current systems, thereby making improvements but not substantive changes or realizing its full potential.

The choice, as always, is ours.