Leaders and decision-makers in many settings are faced with the challenge of how to respond when people break rules and harm relationships. Restorative justice is an approach that can address violations while beginning the process of mending relationships.
What is the most effective response when a student damages school property? What about when an employee uses discriminatory or aggressive language towards a colleague? Or when a community member is robbed? When a hospital patient, client, or prisoner violates organizational safety? The way we as leaders answer such questions not only dictates the values we uphold as an organization, but it can serve to define our leadership as well.
Inevitably, dealing with these types of situations brings an element of fear. We feel the pressure of needing to send a strong message of denunciation and address the ripples of indignation that naturally arise in such situations. We may even sense that how we respond could have an impact on our reputation as a leader.
In the stress of these moments, the fear centres in our brain can dictate a response based on unexamined assumptions, survival instincts, and old habits. Even in calmer moments, we may find ourselves equipped with few effective tools aside from the deeply encoded instinct for punishment. The complex needs and emotions involved in the incident become narrowed to three simplistic questions: “What rules were broken?” “Who did it?” and “What do they deserve?” Restorative justice, by contrast, takes into account both accountability and restoration.
In practice, restorative justice is a response to a harmful incident that seeks the inclusion of all involved, in efforts to meaningfully address the harm and restore trust in relationships.
If punishment – the deliberate infliction of pain – were sufficient enough to deter people from committing harm and violence, the world around us would be a different place. In the United States, for example, where an unprecedented 7 in 1,000 people currently live behind bars, the murder rate is by far the highest in the industrialized world. Studies have found that in the aftermath of capital punishment – perhaps the ultimate form of retribution – murder rates actually go up. Perhaps as restorative justice pioneer Howard Zehr suggests, “The message some potential offenders receive is not that killing is wrong, but that those who wrong us deserve to die” (in Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice, 2005, pg. 77).
Yet while a host of research suggests that punishment is an inadequate response to the complex problems we face in our communities, schools, and institutions, its use has persisted, until recently, as the unquestioned status quo.
Leaders are now beginning to appreciate that punishment is not enough. Simple “pain for pain’s sake” too often fails to educate those who cause harm because it fails to address the needs for healing and repair for those harmed, and fails to seriously account for the needs of bystanders for a sense of group safety.
When we punish, we often have the intuitive sense that we are somehow missing the mark, acting apart from our higher human values. Perhaps for this reason, we witness the rapidly emerging field of restorative justice as a collective attempt to remember the personal and cultural values to which we all aspire.
Restorative justice is a modern term for an ancient idea. It attempts to describe a justice rooted in human dignity, healing, and interconnectedness. With origins in aboriginal teachings, faith traditions, and straightforward common sense, restorative justice seeks answers to a fundamentally different set of questions than those we have so often adopted in response to harm: “Who has been harmed?” “What are their needs?” “Whose obligations are these?” and “How do we collectively work to put things right?” (See Zehr’s Little Book of Restorative Justice, 2002.)
As we begin to grapple with the paradigm shift that restorative justice implies, we need some basic tenets to return to. Susan Sharpe, in her 1998 book, Restorative Justice: A Vision for Healing and Change, lists five principles or goals of restorative justice. These together form a kind of compass to help us work restoratively in various settings.
Invite full participation and consensus.
Give voice to those involved in and affected by a given incident of harm, and invite dialogue among them where appropriate. Outcomes decided upon must feel fair and reasonable to all those participating.
Work towards healing what has been broken.
A restorative response seeks to address the harms – both tangible and intangible – resulting from an incident, and to do what is possible to help meet the needs of any and all affected.
Seek direct accountability.
People causing harm should be held accountable for their actions to the people whom they have hurt. Appropriate reparation should be discussed and expected.
Reintegrate where there has been division.
Harmful actions often create outcasts, alienation, and distrust in the community – and these actions may also be symptoms of such conditions. Where possible, restorative justice will help with reintegration and the repair of relationships.
Strengthen the community and individuals to prevent further harms.
Restorative justice is future-focused and asks the question: “What needs to happen to reduce the chance of people being harmed again?” In this way, the incident itself becomes a catalyst for efforts toward creating a healthier and safer organization or community.
In practice, restorative justice is a response to a harmful incident that seeks the inclusion of all involved, in efforts to meaningfully address the harm and restore trust in relationships. It often – though not always – includes a direct encounter or meeting between the people most affected by an incident, guided by a trained facilitator. Under the right circumstances, such an encounter can be powerful and even life-changing. Even so, it is vital that those facilitating such encounters have the proper training to do so safely.
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