*trigger warning: sexual assault*
I personally first acquired information about Restorative Justice after a visit back in 2019 to the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, California. On our tour of the center, they showed us a mediation room specifically meant for using restorative justice with incarcerated folks which I believe were the beginnings of their current program called “Restore Oakland”. This program is a combination of both the Ella Baker Center of Human Rights and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United which joined forces to focus on many pillars of community healing and resolving conflict while using the restaurant industry to teach about business and accountability. Accountability is a vast part of restorative justice and without it, no healing or healthy progress can occur. The offender has to understand the mistakes they made and only then is there potential to move forward.
Said best by Howard Zehr, a restorative justice pioneer, restorative justice is “...a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible”. Restorative justice is, in very short terms, another form or method of achieving justice. It has indigenous roots, both African and Native American, and it views crime as a harmful act against the community as a whole rather than a harmful act against the system or state. Restorative justice had been practiced by numerous indigenous tribes and communities for years until it was disrupted by colonization and the arrival of Euro-centric values. Chapter two of Fania E. Davis’ The Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice goes into great detail about the indigenous tribes in Africa and Native Americans in Canada who used restorative justice which is a read I highly encourage. Davis quotes an author who wrote a book about indigenous teachings and the roots of restorative justice, Kay Pranis, to explain that restorative justice has a much deeper meaning and significance that non-Indigenous people will not be able to see at the surface level. “‘...the roots [of restorative justice] are in the world view of indigenous people – the understanding of interconnectedness and the dignity of all parts of creation…’” (Davis 20). Without understanding how vital relations and interrelatedness are to indigenous communities we will never understand restorative justice in its entirety. Davis also assures us that if performed properly we can avoid cultural appropriation, but it’s important to recognize the indigenous roots and name that in your space before utilizing restorative justice as community healing.
There are two common competing narratives of restorative justice. The first narrative speaks to the recent rise of restorative justice in North America and a few other parts of the world in the 1970s while the second narrative is closely related to Fania Davis’ researched understanding of restorative justice: a practice that has been used for almost as long as humans and the first societies have walked this Earth. Steve Mulligan in his article “From Retribution to Repair: Juvenile Justice and the History of Restorative Justice” discusses these two competing narratives, where they originated from, and their prevailing critiques. There are critiques of both narratives, but restorative justice, in general, has a societal view as being a “soft approach” to crime and both offenders and victims will not take the process seriously. It is so ingrained in us, especially Americans, that severe punishment, like jail time or worse such as capital punishment, for a crime is justice. But, multiple studies have shown that incarceration and separation from society do not stop offenders from committing crimes. Not only that, but thousands of people are being falsely incarcerated and more so Black people in the U.S at an incredibly alarming rate. Maybe it’s time to consider a different method that breaks down the main points of the harm enacted and focuses on healing rather than blaming in order for everyone to find peace and true justice for all.
The biggest difference between restorative justice and our current criminal justice system, which uses retributive justice, is that in the adversarial system there are purposely two or more parties. There is going to be a specific “winner” and “loser” whether you are fighting another person or fighting against the state, but in restorative justice, there are no sides. Everyone is on the same team working towards the same goal: finding peace and healing through community building. Drawing back to Davis’ work she explains that restorative justice views retributive justice as “unacceptable” because an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth only perpetuates that same cycle of violence. People will continue to feel and want vengeance for what was done to them or a loved one and the only way to break that cycle is to heal and truly understand one another. We, as a community, need to stop viewing the world and ourselves as individualistic and work towards a better understanding of each other and the power of interrelatedness.
Restorative justice can be used in so many other spaces other than in the criminal justice system. There are many programs attached to our justice systems such as peer court and reconciliation programs that utilize restorative justice, but restorative justice can also be used at home, in your friend groups, or in that one club that you’re a member of. The main ingredients and purposes of RJ are accountability, healing, and finding peace after harm has been done and some harms can happen at home and in our own personal circles. It’s important that we not throw these conflicts under the rug and face them with a willingness to take accountability and to learn in order to grow and sustain community.
The Restorative Justice Center here at Berkeley would be more than happy to help out with all of your mediation needs for both students and faculty members. We will be able to host and assist with mediating conflict, creating peace-building circles for big groups as well as team-building circles whose purpose isn’t to restore conflict but to establish a stronger trust and community for your team. We also offer other services such as training and workshops if you or you and your friend group want to work on personal skills such as recognizing racial harms or even learning more about restorative justice itself and being able to hold your own space. The RJC at Cal also encourages you to look beyond our services and seek out other ways of diving deeper into restorative justice such as locally in Oakland at the Ella Baker Center.
There are times when I question restorative justice and how useful it truly would be for certain situations. Drawing back to Mulligan’s work he discusses Eskimo’s legal system and how their system encourages killing and even the death penalty for specific crimes such as “sexual offenses, homicide, excessive lying, and insults” (Mulligan 146). Offenses such as pedophilia and sexual assault are incredibly detrimental and, in my opinion, are some of the worst acts a human can make. Would it be worth it to give the offender a chance? To go through mediation and allow them to mend such a heinous crime? We give other offenders a chance with restorative justice for other crimes, so wouldn’t it be discriminatory to not allow it for certain offenses such as pedophilia and rape? Would you be able to sit through a restorative justice process or mediation if an offender committed such a horrible crime against you or a loved one? These are all questions I ask myself every day, but I have to have faith that understanding and healing are much better alternatives than disproportionate mass incarceration.