Over the past few years, I have heard the term “restorative justice” but never quite understood what it encompassed. Recently, I was directed to a concise explanation; an easy to read 65 page book entitled The Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zehr (Good Books 2002). It is the “Cliff Notes” of this philosophy. (Id. at 5.) While I do not pretend to be an expert after reading this Cliff Notes version, I want to share my thoughts with you.

The author emphasizes that “restorative justice” is not about forgiveness or reconciliation nor is it mediation nor is it designed to reduce recidivism. It is neither an alternative to prison nor a replacement to our legal system. (Id. at 8-13). Rather, it is a philosophy that emphasizes “needs and roles,” focusing on harms, obligations, and “putting right” the wrong. It is “…based upon an old, common sense understanding of wrongdoing:”

“Crime is a violation of people and of interpersonal relationships.”
“Violations create obligations.”
“The central obligation is to put right the wrongs.” (Id. at 19).

In short, it is about relationships. We are all interconnected so that a crime “is a wound in the community, a tear in the web of relationships. Crime represents damaged relationships….[D]amaged relationships are both a cause and the effect of crime.” (Id. at 20).

Thus, harm to one is harm to all. (Id.)

Because we are all interrelated, we each have mutual obligations and responsibilities to “put right” the wrong. “Putting right” involves not only the offender and the victim but the community as well. Restorative justice asks: who has been hurt? What are their needs? And whose obligations are these? (Id. at 20-21).

In short, “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 and obligations in order to heal and put things as right as possible.” (Id. at p. 37).

The guiding questions are simple:

* What are their needs?
* Whose obligation are these?
* Who has a stake in this situation?
* What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to put things right? (Id. at 38).

The key concepts are harm, needs, obligations, stakeholders, “putting right” and doing so while showing respect for all. (Id. at 40-41.)

What struck me is that this philosophy, these guiding questions and these key concepts apply to all disputes, not just the criminal ones. The goal of any dispute resolution is to define the harm and its consequences, determine who has it affected, what are each person’s needs and interests and then find a way “to put things right.” It is a more practical, realistic if not holistic approach than the law provides with its admonition that if x has occurred, then y must be the “punishment.”

The author notes that restorative justice has been used in New Zealand in its juvenile justice system since 1989, and has been used in a variety of contexts since the 1970’s. (Id. at p. 3-5.) I can easily see its application to civil disputes since it attempts to get at the “root” of the problem or issue and not simply put a band aid over it. Unlike our legal system which simply “fixes” a ‘remedy” for an alleged wrong by assessing money or other damages or a prison term, restorative justice seeks to figure out exactly what happened and why it happened, not only from the viewpoint of the “victim” but from the wrongdoer’s and more importantly, from the community’s viewpoint and then asks how can it be corrected (i.e., put right the wrong) from the perspective of all of these stakeholders. It truly seeks to bring “peace” to all concerned, and not simply a “quick fix” which addresses the symptoms and issues quite superficially as now typically occurs under our system of justice.

So… my question is: Why haven’t more people and institutions adopted this methodology? Why is it not already a part of mediation training for civil disputes? Family law disputes? Domestic violence disputes? Other non-criminal disputes? It certainly should be! Restorative Justice seeks to get at the “heart” of the issue and “put it right.” Isn’t this what Alternative Dispute Resolution is all about? Or, at least, should be about?

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by Phyllis G. Pollack

Phyllis G. Pollack is a full time neutral in Los Angeles where, as President of PGP Mediation, she focuses on business, real estate, contract and “lemon law” disputes. She may be reached at Phone: 213-630-8810 / phyllis@pgpmediation.com / Website: www.pgpmediation.com