Restorative Justice is not About Restoring Justice
Restorative justice is an imprecise and somewhat misleading term. One of the most common misunderstandings is that the goal of restorative justice is to restore justice, and therefore that it only applies to individuals and communities that have previously experienced justice, thus excluding Black Americans and others that have been denied justice for generations.
While restorative justice draws from the spiritual beliefs and community justice practices of Indigenous peoples around the world, ultimately it is forward-looking rather than backward-looking. Restorative justice invites us to reimagine justice as we build a future where justice actually is for ALL.
Many of us have been on edge for three weeks, reliving the trauma of George Floyd’s public murder and hoping against hope for justice in that Minneapolis courtroom. And yet the New York Times reported that since the trial of Derek Chauvin began “at least 64 people have died at the hands of law enforcement nationwide.” With each new senseless killing, protestors demand “justice for” the victim. But what is justice when someone has been killed by a system that keeps on killing? And even when a rare individual officer is “held accountable” in a court of law, the fundamental flaws of policing are not addressed.
We need to stop pretending that the criminal legal system can deliver justice if only the right people are put on trial. The “justice system” is organized around individuals and delivering punishment as a proxy for accountability. But it does little to address systemic injustice, in fact, it can serve to legitimize the status quo when occasionally it delivers punishment to actors who are accustomed to acting with impunity. And it is not at all concerned with root causes, which must be addressed in order to prevent further harm.
While I don’t believe that restorative justice is the answer to all of society’s ills, I do think it can guide us into more relational, healing-centered practices and deeper inquiries into the origins of violence. And it invites us to imagine that which we have never known as we move forward together.