Restorative Justice and Transformative Justice are two different, but intersecting movements that
both seek a non-punitive response to harm. Despite their distinct origin stories and intersecting
aims, the two movements are often confused as the same thing or as two movements operating
against each other. In their article “Growing Justice”, social worker and educator Cameron
Rasmussen and director of the Ahimsa Collective Sonya Shah clarify some of the
misconceptions about the relationship between Restorative Justice (RJ) and Transformative
Justice (TJ). This article summarizes some of their key points, and analyzes the potential for both
RJ and TJ to end the harms of state violence.
Rasmussen and Shah believe that ignoring RJ and TJ’s distinct origin stories hinders the
collective effort to “challenge punishment, violence, and domination”. The authors cite two RJ
paradigms to help explain the modern RJ movement. The first is the Indigenous paradigm, and it
recognizes and centers the understanding that Indigenous communities have been practicing
“justice as embedded in a holistic worldview in which justice and wellbeing are inextricably
tied” long before the term “restorative justice” was created by the Western world. In the U.S. in
the 1970s, scholars and practitioners began to form the Western paradigm. RJ in the Western
paradigm understands punishment as harmful, but its predominantly white, upper class founders
mistakenly believed that a restorative approach to justice could flourish in the punitive Western
carceral state. Additionally, the Western paradigm has historically not always centered
Indigenous Peacemaking as the origin of RJ practice. Because the whiteness of the Western RJ
movement has driven historical negligence of RJ’s indigenous roots and a practice of partnership
with prosecutors and criminal courts, many see RJ as “co-opted, colonized, or misaligned with
the aims of social movements seeking liberation”.
TJ was born out of the anti-violence movement in the late 1990s and led “primarily by
Black women, women of color, domestic and sexual violence survivors, and queer communities,
many of whom were survivors of violence.” Because the founders understood interpersonal
violence is always situated in structural and state violence, abolition and an approach to justice
outside of the state is inherent in the TJ. Although TJ has drawn on RJ’s approach to achieving
justice by nourishing relationships through healing and care, TJ believes at its core that
“addressing interpersonal harm without addressing systemic harm will always be insufficient.”
Examples of TJ organizing at work include Creative Interventions, the Bay Area Transformative
Justice Collective, Just Practice, Vision Change Win, Spring Up, and Project Nia.
By drawing on the teachings of each other, RJ and TJ have the potential to help each other
grow the larger movement towards justice outside of the carceral state. Rasmussen and Shah
describe how over the last 50 years, RJ has evolved from a social service within the criminal
justice system to a social movement that advocates for a larger justice paradigm shift committed
to structural change and racial justice. The TJ movement has shaped the RJ movement, as many
RJ organizations now affirm RJ’s inability to heal interpersonal harm without uplifting
Indigenous Peacemaking and demanding prison abolition and structural transformation.
Examples of such organizations include Restorative Response Baltimore, Restorative Justice for
Oakland Youth, Impact Justice, The Ahimsa Collective, and Common Justice. Meanwhile, the
tools RJ uses to address harm without punishment can aid the organizing initiative of TJ by
helping balance its “political and relational commitments”.
Rasmussen and Shah do a beautiful job in showing how at their best, RJ and TJ can
collaborate towards the collective goal of placing justice into the hands of people and their
communities as opposed to the state. This collaboration will not work if RJ movements do not
consistently and explicitly uplift Indigenous voices and respect the movement’s Indigenous
origins, and work towards abolition of the carceral state.