I am a restorative justice facilitator. I use restorative practices in a number of arenas. You could say that my friends and I around Colorado have some expertise in restorative justice. We are the experts. My point is this: At cocktail parties this holiday season, folks will likely take an interest. They will likely challenge restorative justice and community justice with worse case scenarios. "What about restorative justice for rape? What about murder? This is only for slap on the wrist stuff, right?" Just as likely, I will be tempted to give answers; tempted to appear the expert.
This conversational dilemma, has wrapped up in it, so much of what the question of justice seeks to answer. It goes beyond restorative vs. retributive justice, by speaking to our longing for community. It speaks to our need for relationship and due maintenance. When we see wrongs being done, we rise to the occasion with all sorts of energy and ideas and solutions. A big part of us wants to save the day. We'll fix it. We'll try to expedite healing. The temptation to do justice to others or to do justice for others has been there since kindergarten, at least for me. It rises out of my fear that folks just can't cut it for themselves. I might rest assured however, because the conventional justice system was designed to do just that; serve those individuals not willing, or yet able, to engage in their own experience around the crime. Court authority and ultimate say is a saving grace for so many affected by wrongdoing. There may, however, be a third way- a way of doing justice with others. (Social Discipline Window- Wachtel & McCold, 2004)
This third, riskier and possibility prone approach to getting things done, refrains from the kind of expert-dom that our conventional justice system has adopted absolutely. Doing justice with people is about resisting the power trip. Be it retributive or restorative justice, turning authority over to those most intimately affected by wrongdoing ain't easy. It's scary. It's about power. It's about giving the keys to the rightful owner.
The caution here is this: let us not grow too confident that restorative justice is immune to authoritarian leanings. Experience tells me that, yes, restorative justice, at its core, is about turning power over to its rightful wielders. But my experience is limited to restorative justice at the grassroots level. In this exciting time of restorative legislation and government adoption, let antiquity remind us that even history's most benevolent philosophies will struggle to undergo impressment into system-hood, and to emerge intact (Stephen Jenkinson). It is the nature of systems, not restorative justice, that demands our attention. The larger and more entrenched a system becomes, the more likely that decision making will move from the ground level to the corporate level. Restorative justice as I know it, would not survive that shift. The shift from asking folks what works best, to telling them. Either approach, like two distinct seeds, may begin to take root, right there at the cocktail party, depending on which one you water.
So this holiday season, amid the small talk and the wine, let us remember that trait of some of some of our finest restorative justice practitioners; their un-authority; their submission to the community as the true pros. Who am I, another expert, to make any claim on defining justice for any other person? Who needs experts when you have family members? Who needs fancy opinions, when you have human beings with some stake in what happened that night?
Don't get me wrong, I'll philosophize the night away; going toe to toe with anyone willing. But before we experts make the mistake of talking at victims, offenders or even telling the conventional justice system what's best, let us be so skillful as to regard the neighborhood or the classroom in which the crime took place, as the ultimate sovereign. They'll know best- better than any outsider, at least. Restorative justice places that old fashioned bet- that community, has all the inherent wisdom required, to meet needs and to make good decisions; in fact it is the only thing that ever has (thank you Margaret Mead).
So, best of luck this holiday season! May your inner expert kneel before the beating heart of community. I at least, will need all the luck I can find.