Academic journal article Social Justice

Critique of Restorative Justice

Academic journal article Social Justice

Critique of Restorative Justice

Article excerpt

LONG BEFORE U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL JANET RENO DIRECTED THE OFFICE OF Criminal Justice Programs in 1996 to look into innovative, community-based programs, restorative justice principles were being explored, discussed, and practiced across Canada, South Africa, Minnesota, Colorado, and not surprisingly, among American Indians. Janet Reno outlined her vision of community justice, a concept that builds on the problem-solving approach of community policing that creates strong linkages between the police, courts, prosecutors, and correction systems and the community they serve (U.S. Department Justice, 2002).

In response to the attorney general's call for a community-oriented justice, several federal agencies--the Office of Justice Programs, the National Institute of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the National Institute of Corrections--hosted a national conversation on restorative justice (Ibid.). "Over 100 practitioners, victims, and researchers from ... the U.S. and Canada met to discuss the concept, promise, and limits of the emerging philosophy of restorative justice" (Ibid.).

Restorative justice has become a business beyond U.S. federal agencies. A college located in rural California advertised the study of restorative justice as a new and growing occupational future. Established departments of criminology now offer a specialized curriculum called "Balanced and Restorative Justice." The Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota is lodged in the School of Social Work. There are several national organizations, among them The Center for Justice and Reconciliation at Prison Fellowship. Another is the Victim Offender Mediation Association (VOMA), and there are many private consulting firms.

At the international level, the United Nations has been a prime mover in endorsing the principles of restorative justice. In 1997, the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice adopted a provisional agenda for the Tenth U.N. Congress, held in the year 2000. Significantly, the fifth paragraph of the document points to a danger of restorative justice: the neglect of "the etiological factors of crime--poverty, racism, cultural/social values, [and] individualism." This has been recognized in South Africa, where proponents of restorative justice seek to go beyond punishment to address the root causes of crime and help to restore social relations gone askew. Bishop Desmond Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission explicitly drew upon restorative justice principles when it linked issues of healing or restorative truth, reconciliation, and amnesty. The Commission insisted on the acknowledgment and affirmation that a person's pain is real and worthy of attention, and is central to the restoration of the dignity of victims.

The theme of reconciliation that characterized the political transition in South Africa is linked to the African philosophy of humanity and community, ubuntu (Roach, 2000; Skelton, 2002). The acceptance of non-retributive forms of justice, familiar from African traditional justice, community courts, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, dovetail with the international trend toward restorative justice. The Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation is behind many initiatives designed to bridge the gap between victim and perpetrator in a country experiencing very high crime rates and with a legacy of drastic polarizations in wealth and educational attainment. Although Zehr (1990) has noted that South Africa's attempt to apply restorative justice principles has been incomplete, the movement cannot be said to be marginal. The Center's director, Graham Simpson, was one of the drafters of the National Crime Prevention Strategy, adopted by the South African cabinet in May 1996. Most initiatives focus on pretrial mediation, in which both parties are asked to try to talk through their conflict as an alternative to prosecution, while others take the form of educational diversion programs for youth at risk (Joffe-Walt, 2004). …

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