17. Restorative, Transformative Justice

17.4 Restorative & Transformative Justice: Definitions and Conceptions

Dr. Alana Marie Abramson and Melissa Leanne Roberts, M.A.

Restorative justice is an approach to achieving justice that involves, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense or harm to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations in order to heal and put things as right as possible. (Zehr, 2015, p. 48)

Restorative justice is more than responding to crime in a different way. It is a way of interacting with one another and attending to needs arising from structural and systemic injustices. Braithwaite (2003) envisions the potential for restorative justice to radically transform the legal system, our family lives, conduct in the workplace, and the way we practice politics. Hopkins (2012) believes that “by using the principles and practices implicit in the restorative justice philosophy, we have a set of tools for ensuring greater social justice in every aspect of our lives” (p. 122). Harris (2004) captures this connection to social justice in her definition of restorative justice:

[t]ransformative, restorative justice focuses on a given point in time and on the specific people who are involved with one another at that time, as well as directing attention to both the preconditions and antecedents of that particular moment, which generally implicate factors and forces that go beyond the individuals most directly affected (p. 139).

Harms do not occur in a vacuum or in isolation. As suggested by Harris (2004), restorative justice also looks to the life events that led up to the incident. The short film The Woolf Within shows how restorative justice addresses preconditions that lead to harm.

Restorative justice in its most expansive definition is about individual, social, economic, and political transformation. Van Ness and Strong (2010) note the importance of turning the lens inward to examine our daily lives and how we treat others. This shift is a transformation of relationships within ourselves and with one another. Van Ness and Strong (2010) argue that individual perspective transformation leads to the recognition that some structures also need transformation.  In the justice system, structures like the police and courts privilege some citizens over others, sideline the concerns of victims, include systemic and systematic barriers, and often cause further harm to people and relationships. This legacy demands a remediation or even a transformation of structures (Van Ness & Strong, 2010). Van Ness and Strong (2010) and Elliott (2011) contend that attending to both the individual and their relationships with social structures is necessary.

While this may be the most expansive definition, it is important to note that restorative justice is defined in many different ways and there is not one universally accepted definition. To organise the various definitions of restorative justice, Johnstone and Van Ness (2007) propose three conceptions: encounter, reparative, and transformative. Below you can find examples of definitions that fall under each of these conceptions and examples of how restorative justice could be practiced in line with these three conceptions. You should notice that there are common elements such as a focus on collaboration, problem solving, dialogue, healing and restoration. Johnstone and Van Ness (2007) note that different definitions of restorative justice often have a different emphasis on either encounter, reparative, or transformative dimensions.

Encounter Definition

Restorative justice is a process whereby the parties with a stake in a particular offense come together to determine collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offense and its implications for the future. (Marshall, 1985, as cited in Braithwaite, 1999, p. 5)

Victim-offender dialogue in which affected parties come together to discuss the impacts of a crime and how to address it constitutes an encounter.

Restorative justice approaches have the potential to build and repair relationships through encounters following harm caused by crime, as illustrated by a young woman who stole from a café in a city in Nova Scotia meeting the person she hurt.

Reparative Definition

Reparative conceptions of restorative justice involve seeking non-punitive responses to fulfill reparation to people and relationships after a crime has occurred. Decisions about reparation are made by those directly involved in the harm.  Reparation can be symbolic and/or material. Material reparation generally addresses specific harms (tangible and intangible) and could include acknowledging responsibility for the harm caused, returning stolen property, offering an apology, or performing services for or paying restitution to the person harmed. Symbolic reparation aims to address the less tangible needs victims often have in the aftermath of crime such as the desire to understand what happened and why, have their story heard, and hear a sincere expression of remorse from the person who harmed them.  Symbolic reparations can be even more meaningful to victims and can convey the offenders’ willingness to make amends (Sharpe, 2007).

For situations where victims and offenders do not directly communicate, offenders may still engage in acts of community reparation, as shown in this documentary called Emma’s Acres.

 Transformative Definition

Restorative justice in its most comprehensive form is relational, transformative, democratic peacebuilding that attempts to transform communities and schools toward recognizing that people are not objects to be manipulated, but rather organic, interconnected, worthy human beings. (Vaandering, 2014, p. 513)

Transformative conceptions of restorative justice are grounded in the notion that restorative justice is a way of living whereby the well-being and needs of all are considered individually and structurally (Sullivan & Tifft, 2005, p. 187). Justice involves meeting needs, treating all beings as equal and worthy, and seeking the transformation of relationships between people and our environment (Johnstone & Van Ness, 2007).

An example of a transformative approach to restorative justice can be found by analysing the sexual harassment case of Dalhousie Dentistry School which made international news in 2014. Not only did the perpetrators participate in face-to-face encounters with those they hurt, they also committed to working with the School of Dentistry to address the culture of misogyny. These attempts to address cultural change as well as individual impacts show the promise of a restorative, transformative justice approach. To learn more about the Dalhousie case, see Dalhousie dentistry class reflects on Facebook scandal after restorative justice.

Stop & Think

Which conception of restorative justice do you most relate to and why? Think about a recent crime that happened to you, a friend or in your community. If you were the victim, could you imagine participating in restorative justice? If you were the offender, would you choose restorative justice if it was offered? Why or why not?



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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Alana Marie Abramson and Melissa Leanne Roberts, M.A. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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