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Restorative Justice: A Model for Personal and Social Empowerment

Restorative Justice: A Model for Personal and Social Empowerment

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shows how restorative justice is empowering for all individuals involved
shows how restorative justice is empowering for all individuals involved

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Published by: katherine stuart van wormer on Mar 05, 2009
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Restorative Justice:A Model for Personal and Societal EmpowermentKatherine van Wormer, PhD, MSSW, is Professor of Social Work, University ofNorthern Iowa, 30 Sabin Hall, Cedar Falls, IA 50614 (E-mail: vanworme@uni.edu).Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work, Vol. 23(4) 2004, pp. 103-120.ABSTRACT. Restorative justice is the growing movement that aims tochange the direction of criminal law by focusing it on the needs of victimsand repairing communities. The focus of this article is on three restorativeinitiatives-family group conferencing, victim-offender mediation, andreparations. The link between social work and restorative justice is exploredin each of these areas.Social workers are employed in such settings as victim-assistanceprograms, women’s shelters, juvenile court, county probation departments,prisons, child protective services, and public schools. The emergenceof specialized courts such as drug courts, mental health courts,and family courts, moreover, has resulted in an increasing presence ofsocial workers in the criminal justice system (Roberts and Brownell,1999). Social workers providing clinical services and advocacy withinthose settings are confronted with the need to remain true to their socialvalues, values that stress seeking the good in people and advocating forsocial justice. Increasingly today, consistent with the emerging emphasison internationalism (Healy, 2001; Link, 2002; van Wormer, 2004)social work is regarded as a human rights profession (Ife, 2001;Reichert, 2003). The challenges of this global era are well articulated byFinn and Jacobson (2003):The 21st century challenges to social justice, human rights, andcitizenship posed by transnational capital, growing global inequalityand social exclusion, and multiple forms of violence confrontthe limits of the social work imagination and call for creative andcritical interventions that focus on social justice. (p. 57)One area that is ripe for a stretching of our social work imagination isrestorative justice. Restorative justice is a concept that has captivatedthe imagination of the world in settling disputes. The restorative justicemovement aims to change the direction of criminal justice by refocusingit on aiding victims and repairing communities rather than on punishment.Derived from indigenous and religious forms of justice,restorative justice is a concept for all time and all nations. Today, restorativeinitiatives are being introduced worldwide, in small ways andlarge, as forms of resolving conflict and of meting out justice to victimsof wrongdoing. Along with members of the legal profession, socialworkers have been actively involved in this movement.The task of this paper is to discuss the current trends in dispensingjustice with special emphasis on developments in three areas–familygroup conferencing, victim-offender mediation, and reparations. Thesetrends are highly relevant to social work values and practice frameworks.At the intersection of policy and practice, restorative initiativesclosely parallel the empowerment and strengths-based perspectives ofsocial work. In addition family group conferencing is highly compatiblewith social work practice because of its goals of self-determination andethnic-sensitivity. Victim-offender mediation closely ties in to socialwork’s focus on peacemaking and empathy. Reparations relates mostclosely to social work’s mission to promote social justice.FROM ADVERSARIAL TO RESTORATIVE JUSTICE
 
Current justice systems are based largely on the retributive modeland upon an adversarial process for determination of guilt or non-guilt(Hadley, 2001). Under the adversarial form of justice, crime is definedas an offense against the state. Deliberation takes place according to astandardized, one-size-fits-all trial or more often, a plea-bargainingarrangement;victim input tends to be minimal in plea bargain hearings(Van Ness and Strong, 2002).The legalistic concept of guilt, as Howard Zehr (1995) indicates, ishighly technical and removed from real-life experiences. The processrewards the person who denies his or her guilt and the one who has anaggressive, even ruthless attorney. The attorney’s ability to demolishthe witness, often the victim, is the measure of a successful lawyer. Thewhole adversarial process, in fact, harks back to the Middle Ages inEngland when hired combatants fought duels on behalf of accused individuals(van Wormer, 1997, 2003). Today’s competition is the trial:One side wins, and one side loses. Families on one side of the law aretorn apart from families on the other side. Such court processes hardlyenhance communication and healing among family members (Morris,2000).Although the offender is the focus of most criminal justice procedures,individual accountability–to the victim or community–rarely entersthe picture. If an accused person confesses to the police, forexample, his or her possibility of “getting a good deal” from the prosecutoris minimized. For victims, too, the conventional model leaves a lotto be desired. The adversarial process often retraumatizes the victim asdefense attorneys make the victim their target. Criminal justice proceedings,moreover, often reinforce the negative view that somehow thevictim is responsible for the occurrence of the crime (Van Ness andStrong, 2002). Although the primary victim today is encouraged tospeak during the sentencing portion of the trial, the secondary victims ofthe crime-families and neighbors in the local community–have no voiceat all, no matter how great the impact of the crime (Bazemore, 1999).Arguably the adversarial approach is the best way, if not to get at thetruth (which it rarely does), to protect the individual’s (the accused’s)rights. The right to representation by an attorney and the presumption ofinnocent until proven guilty is chief among these rights. Often, however,the pursuit of justice results in injustice. Factors of economics,gender, class, and race come into play. Sometimes, too, the word justiceis equated with vengeance. Witness, for example, the cry for “justice” inconnection with the recent terrorist attacks on New York City (articleentitled “Do We Seek Vengeance or Justice?” by Peterson, 2001).Justice, however, can be conceptualized another way. Justice can besought in terms of reconciliation and the making of peace. In terms ofetymology, the word justice is derived from the Latin jus which in classi-cal times denoted right, especially legal right (Ayto, 1990). Social worktheorists speak of social justice as a core social work value. The definition,newly added to the Dictionary of Social Work (Barker, 2003), talks aboutbasic rights, protections, and opportunities: “A key social work value, socialjustice entails advocacy to confront discrimination, oppression, and institutionalinequities” (p. 405).Restorative justice suggests that the most important fact about crimeis that it causes harm to individuals, their families, and communities(Bazemore, 1999). Justice, from this perspective, entails repairing theharm, not obtaining retribution. Instead of focusing on a past wrong, restorativejustice helps orient offenders toward the present and futurestate of affairs, toward membership in the community rather than removalfrom it. The three-pronged approach strives to achieve justice for
 
the individual offender, the victim, and the community.WHAT IS RESTORATIVE JUSTICE?Let’s start with some examples:After several meetings with the facilitator-counselor, a womanvisits her grandson in prison; the grandson is serving time for themurder of his father (his grandmother’s son). As the youth cries atthe pain he has caused, grandmother and grandson express theirlove for each other in a deep embrace.A woman who had burglarized her friend’s home sat with her familymembers in a circle that included the victim and the victim’sfamily; after the victim told her story of fear and anguish and theoffender apologized, arrangements were made for restitution.A big boy, “the school bully,” listens to his victims tell of theirmisery due to the threats and ridicule they have experienced fromthis classmate; shaken by what he has heard the “bully” promisesnot to continue acting like that and to get help for his problems.In an Indian peacekeeping circle, members of the community openthe session with a prayer and reminder that the circle has been convenedto discuss the behavior of a young man who assaulted hissister in a drunken rage; an eagle feather is passed around the cir-cle, held by each speaker as he or she expresses feelings about theharmful behavior.Common to all these illustrations is an emphasis on face-to-facecommunication, truth telling, personal empowerment, and healingby all parties to the wrong doing. Around the globe, such restorativeprocesses are offering hope for more constructive responses to harminflicted by humans on one another. Rooted in the rituals of indigenouspopulations and Canadian Mennonite forms of resolving conflict,restorative justice advocates non-adversarial means of settlingdisputes; the goal is to restore individual lawbreakers to the communityrather than isolating them from it. The active involvement offamily members of both the offending and injured parties is one ofthe most striking aspects of this form of peacemaking. Today, acrossNorth America, Britain and Australia, restorative justice is emergingquietly to take its place alongside mainstream criminal justice. Operatingwithin the legal structures of various countries, restorative justiceprinciples, and community-based sanctions were recognized bythe Supreme Court of Canada in 1999 through amendments to theCriminal Code (Hadley, 2001).The varieties of initiatives that fall under this rubric have theirroots in the rituals of indigenous populations from across the globe.This form of justice has as its purpose the repairing of the harm thathas been done to the victim, community, and offender himself or herself.Restorative justice condemns the criminal act but not the actorand holds the offenders accountable to the community (Umbreit,2000). The restorative process can take place either in addition to orinstead of standard judicial proceedings. This three-pronged approachgives individuals and families most directly affected bywrongdoing the opportunity to be involved in the resolution process.The conceptualization of the modern restorative justice movementwas bolstered through the pioneering work and writings of HowardZehr of Eastern Mennonite University. The focus of the early researchon this new paradigm was in North America and to some extentin Europe. Later in at least two American states and twocountries, whole correctional systems have undergone fundamentalchange in conformity with restorative principles. Before looking ateach of the three models singled out for this article, a brief look at relevantsocial work values and principles is in order.

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