To answer that question, it’s helpful to consider different types of justice.  Today, retributive justice dominates our legal syhome_text_3_cropstem.  At its core, retributive justice considers punishment, if proportionate, to be the best response to crime.  When an offender breaks the law, justice requires that he/she forfeit something in return, often resulting in incarceration.

In contrast, restorative justice emphasizes the  importance of responding to human needs. It’s an approach that includes all of the people who have been impacted by a crime (offender, survivor, family, community). While punishment is not ruled out for the offender, especially for safety reasons, restorative justice focuses on restoration. Survivors take an active role in the process of addressing and dealing with what’s happened. Offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions, “to repair the harm they’ve done.  The restorative approach also aims to help the offender to avoid future offenses.

Restorative justice is not a program.  Rather, it is a way of looking at crime. The table below outlines differing approaches to justice:

Retributive Justice

Restorative Justice

Crime is an act against the law, a violation of a law, an abstract idea Crime is an act against another person and the community
The criminal justice system controls crime Crime control lies primarily in the community
Offender accountability defined as taking punishment Accountability defined as assuming responsibility and taking action to repair harm
Crime is an individual act with individual responsibility Crime has both individual and social dimensions of responsibility
Punishment is effective:

·       Threats of punishment deter crime

·       Punishment changes behavior

Punishment alone is not effective in changing behavior and is disruptive to community harmony and good relationships
Victims are peripheral to the process Victims are central to the process of resolving crime
The offender is defined by deficits The offender is defined by capacity to make reparation
Focus on establishing blame or guilt, on the past (did he/she do it?) Focus on the problem solving, on liabilities/obligations, on the future (what should be done?)
Emphasis on adversarial relationship Emphasis on dialogue and negotiation
Imposition of pain to punish and deter/prevent Restitution as a means of restoring both parties: goal of reconciliation/restoration
Community on sideline, represented abstractly by state Community as facilitator in restorative process
Response focussed on offender’s past behavior Response focused on harmful consequences of offender’s behavior; emphasis on the future
Dependence upon proxy professionals Direct involvement by participants

To Act Justly and to Love Mercy and to Walk Humbly with Your God

In our work to promote Restorative Justice, we are present to two realities:

first, love, more than any other virtue, is the motive and agent for growth in people’s lives, and
second, the single most absent reality in the criminal justice system is love.

Since healing, reconciliation, safety and accountability occur only in the context of a community that has as its centre, love, and since faith communities are charged with a mission to transform the world through actions that find expression in love, we believe faith communities need to be involved in transforming the justice system.

If love is to be an effective agent of change in the criminal justice system, we need to understand the vision of justice proposed by a restorative approach.  Questions that seek a response to the key dimensions of the harm done by crime can help us discover that vision.

In his book, Changing LensesHoward Zehr identifies six guiding questions that can help clarify our vision and our response.  When a criminal act occurs, he suggests we ask:

Who has been hurt?

What are their needs?

Whose obligations are these?

What are the causes?

Who has a stake in the situation?

What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to address causes and put things right?[1]

These question can be contrasted with those asked by traditional criminal justice:

What laws have been broken?

Who did it?

What do the offender(s) deserve? [2]

Most people agree that the traditional form of justice has merit but it is important to recognize that this model of justice has the law as a central focus.  By contrast, the point of departure for a restorative approach is relationship. In a restorative process the first question asked is, “who has been hurt”?  The primary question is not the issue of a broken law but rather concern about relationships that have been harmed.

At Micah, we invite faith communities and others into the work of restorative justice because we recognize that love provides an indispensable foundation that allows us to ask the relational questions suggested by Howard Zehr.  Faith communities also manifest a deep respect for law and this balanced approach to law and love make real accountability and healing possible.

By Peter Oliver, Micah

  1. Zehr, Howard. Changing Lenses – A New Focus for Crime and Justice. Scottdale PA: 2005 (3rd ed), 271.
  2. Zehr, Howard. The Little Book of Restorative Justice, Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2002.