Restorative Justice has been the dominant form of justice throughout most of human existence. It emerged from prehistoric times around the globe and from the earliest civilizations. Elements of RJ can be found in the code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2060 BCE) from Sumer; the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1700 BCE) from Babylon; both Old and New Testaments of the Bible; the Brehan laws from Ireland; and many others. From the indigenous Maori of New Zealand to the First Nation Peoples of Canada, RJ has been the natural form of justice.
With the concepts of weregild (denoting restitution) and frith (the harmony that can result from just atonement and communal balance), the original tribes of Northwestern Europe were likewise immersed in RJ. The waning of this type of justice can be loosely traced back to the Norman conquest of England in the year 1066. Punitive punishment began to take precedence over settlements and the restorative form of justice was replaced by a form of justice more concerned with retribution. As the focus of justice became increasingly characterized by retribution, the concepts of weregild and communal frith were replaced by those of corporal and capital punishment as well as a system that included fines, confiscations, and forfeitures to the King. All crime in the kingdom became a crime against the King. As nation-states developed, governments took the place of Kings in this capacity, thus rendering the victims very much marginalized.
The history of Western Civilization’s current retributive criminal justice and penal system is not so easily simplified. It developed from a cobbling of Roman and Cannon Law and gained further influence from the Reformation, Enlightenment, French Revolution, and European traditions in general. In conjunction with a greater consolidation of power, the state succeeded in monopolizing the entire judicial process. Crime, as defined by the state, required the administration of pain for retribution and prison became the primary instrument for applying such punitive sanctions.
RJ as a modern movement emerged in the 1970’s in Elmira, Ontario and Elkhart, Indiana, as a response to a growing crime problem. It has since spread across North America and throughout a number of countries in Europe. RJ played a prominent role in post-Apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as becoming the default form of justice for New Zealand’s juvenile system, based on the native Maori tradition of “Utu” (restoring balance). Likewise, RJ has been incorporated in Minnesota’s Department of Corrections for nearly two decades. Further restorative inroads have been made in the states of Wisconsin, Washington, and Alabama prison systems including the operation of cognitive communities and Evidence Based Practice Honor Dorms. It is apparent that RJ as a state, national, global, and social movement is growing rapidly precisely because it is a common sense process that is proven effective.
Restorative Justice (RJ) is both a theory and practice that emphasizes repairing the harms caused, and often revealed, by criminal behavior. By involving those who have a stake in a specific crime, RJ seeks to heal the harms while identifying the needs and obligations of those involved in an effort to put things right.
Crime is defined as an offense against the state. It is primarily focused on the offender, with the guiding questions being: What laws have been broken?, Who did it?, and What do they deserve?. Consequently, the actual victims often feel ignored, even abused by the entire modern criminal justice process. In contrast, justice that is restorative is concerned primarily with the victim. The guiding questions being: Who has been hurt?, What are their needs?, and Whose obligations are these?. RJ is a paradigm shift in the understanding of crime as the breaking of a law against the faceless state to a realization that crime is a wrong, injury, or violation against a person and community. The primary stakeholders in a given crime are the victim, the offender and the community, ideally all of whom should be given the opportunity to take part in the restorative process in order to heal and reconcile the damage caused.
As it stands the criminal justice system inadvertently discourages offenders from acknowledging their responsibilities while encouraging offenders towards a pattern of selfish behavior. A RJ system seeks to aid offenders in comprehending the consequences of their actions including acceptance of personal responsibility and learning to empathize with victims. Such accountability has proven to be better for the victims, community, and offenders.
RJ promotes reconciliation over retribution. The infliction of a “just dessert” of pain on offenders will not heal the harms of crime. True justice requires more. Repair, reconciliation, rehabilitation and the rebuilding of relationships requires a search for solutions. Offenders should be allowed and obliged to make the world a better place as part of their rehabilitation. Restorative Justice enables this process to begin.