Creating Communities of Care pt 3: Restorative and transformative justice

This is Part III in a 5-part series on creating communities of resilience and care by examining abuse and accountability. This was originally published on Little Red Tarot. Find the other pieces in this series here.

A person with brown complexion and black hair stands behind a glass that has white paint obscuring their eyes in the background.

There are many reasons to explore alternative modes of justice.

Communities that are commonly targets of police violence, such as black, trans and immigrant communities, have sought to find a way to address harm without endangering the individuals involved. Women who have sought justice for domestic and sexual violence but found a dead end when they seek justice through law enforcement have had to explore alternative options for keeping themselves and others safe. These are just a couple of examples that come to mind.

My goal in writing this series is to explore the issue of rape and abuse and how it is dealt with on a community level. I first began with an analysis on the discourse surrounding ‘callout culture’, then debunked the myths that muddy our understanding of exposing abuse, and now we need to talk about our alternative options in dealing with abuse in our communities. The systems put in place by the state often do more harm than good, and they especially haven’t done much, if anything, in the way of preventing future harm.

As I have witnessed, the overwhelm and confusion that arise when abuse is exposed stems from a feeling of helplessness and lack of authentic dialogue. Understanding restorative and transformative justice models gives this dialogue a head start.

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Restorative Justice

The origins of restorative justice are ancient. Before the first monarchs, governing bodies and the state, communities relied on each member for survival. Each member had a crucial place in society and the costs of losing community cohesion was great. While we can’t know for certain how our ancient ancestors dealt with harms perpetrated by community members against another, and these methods took infinitely diverse forms, we can know that justice was not handled lightly and that repair and accountability had to have been a central concern.

Modern resurgences of restorative justice, particularly as described by Howard Zehr in his Little Book of Restorative Justice, rely heavily on influences from First Nations peoples of North America and Maori peoples from New Zealand.

Restorative justice is not a set formula, but rather a framework for understanding harm between individuals and communities. Restorative justice critically engages the current paradigm of justice where the state is the primary stakeholder when an offense occurs. Rather than centering the state, the principles of restorative justice ask us to look at who has a stake in a given offense and to regard these people with full consideration of their humanity.

Restorative justice recognizes three primary stakeholders in the wake of an offense: the victim, the offender, and the community. Community can be defined in any number of ways; but simply put, community implies the people who experience secondary effects of wrongdoing or who had some sort of influence on the perpetration of a crime. Each of these stakeholders have certain needs that must be addressed.

For instance: victims need information, an opportunity to speak their truth, empowerment and restoration of the personal agency that was stripped from them by the offender, and restitution or vindication. Restitution refers to the return of something that belonged to them or to compensation for damages done, and vindication refers to the clearing of one’s name, to wash away any notions that they were responsible for the harm done to them.

Offenders, on the other hand, need a fair opportunity to be accountable and take responsibility for the harms they caused, encouragement in experiencing personal transformation, and support in being integrated into the community again.

While the stake that a community holds is always considered secondary to the stake of the victim, there are still a number of needs that arise and the role that community plays cannot be understated. Community members need attention paid to their concerns and the secondary harms they experienced. For some, this may be a sense of betrayal that someone they admired turned out to be abusive. Others may experience vicarious traumatization through witnessing and holding space for an offense or series of offenses. Some may need attention paid to the effects of watching their community disintegrate in response to the harm done. There are so many ways that people not directly involved in an offense can feel the effects of it, and these need to be treated as important.

Community needs to be invested in accountability as well. Just as the community can be harmed by an offense, so too do they have a role in creating the environment within which an offense has occurred. As understood through the lens of restorative justice, communities need the opportunity to build up their sense of community and mutuality, the encouragement to be invested in the welfare of their fellow community members, and support in building a community culture that is healthy and accountable. Through engaging the community, restorative justice strengthens bonds and prepares people to weather the many changing circumstances and potentially painful situations which may arise.

A scene of many marching people on a street. In the front a person with blonde hair, a white jacket, and pink gloves holds a sign that says “WE ARE BETTER THAN THIS!”

Transformative Justice

Where restorative justice compensates for the failings of the criminal justice system by addressing the needs of victims, offenders and communities alike, transformative justice goes further in rejecting the criminal justice system altogether.

Transformative justice arose as a response to a perceived shortcoming of restorative justice – that is, it’s co-optation by the state. The language of “restoration” is one that did not sit well with the people of the non-profit organization Generation Five, who validly critique the end goal of restoring conditions to what they were before an offense occurred. As far as Generation Five is concerned, the previous conditions are conditions in which abuse and sexual violence is bred with impunity. From this perspective, the state should not be a collaborator in justice because wielding punitive powers rooted in white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, imperialism, and all forms of oppression will never bring about true justice.

In this analysis, the framework of transformative justice provides answers to a shortsightedness in the framework of restorative justice. The failure to absolutely center the importance of systemic change and engaging systems of oppression in our coordinated community responses to violence completely undermines any efforts to rehabilitate offenders, meet the needs of survivors, and create safer, stronger communities. Transformative justice urges us to look deeper than the surface level of individual offenses, and look towards systemically rooted beliefs that create scarcity thinking and attitudes of entitlement and domination that lead to interpersonal violence.

Transformative justice, as articulated by Generation Five, also reminds us in many ways to take things slow. On the more immediate level, the evidence-based model of “proving truth” espoused by the criminal justice system is rejected in favor of a slow process of accumulating information and using that information to inform a thoughtful and effective response. On the greater level, Generation Five reminds us that this is not work that is going to be done overnight, in a matter of weeks, months, or even years. Indeed, this is work that will take generations. Thus their name, Generation Five – meant to indicate that their goal is to eradicate childhood sexual violence within five generations.

While we can apply the principles now, the work we do is the work of undoing and of creating something new. That is not something that can be accomplished by addressing individual instances of rape and abuse alone, but by addressing the systemic, power-based causes of rape and abuse.

While this task is neither quick nor easy, it is a worthy one.

Any response to abuse and rape needs to be coordinated within the context of transformative justice – that is, it must address systemic issues and challenge them on individual, community, and institutional levels.

At times, this work can feel like beating our heads against a wall. Keep the big picture in mind. In many ways, this work is just beginning, but it has to be done.

This is Part III in a 5-part series on creating communities of resilience and care by examining abuse and accountability. You can find previous and subsequent posts here. In Part IV we’ll explore a more detailed definition of abuse.