Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Originally published in Black & Pink's Bi-monthly Newsletter
What is Restorative Justice? Ancestral Practices for Peaceful and Interconnected Living Today. by: David Ryan Castro-Harris, Founder, Amplify RJ (Restorative Justice)
Restorative Justice (RJ) philosophy and practices have existed throughout human history, but Howard Zehr of Eastern Mennonite University is widely credited for popularizing the term. In his book Changing Lenses, he defined Restorative Justice as “…a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offence and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.”
What Zehr described as an alternative to the criminal legal system is actually a process that all of our ancestors used to resolve conflict. If we go back far enough to the times where our people lived in small tribes, it was important to resolve conflict without throwing someone out of community because that person would either die on their own or cause more harm somewhere else. Losing even one member is a significant loss in a small community. Not only are they someone’s sibling, child, parent, and friend; they were also a significant contributor to the community’s work.
Our ancestors deeply valued the idea of interconnection because community relationships were so important. Cultures across the globe express this idea of the unity, oneness, and connectedness between all beings. The Lakota people describe it as “mitakuye oyasin” and the Mayans in modern Mexico and Central America use “in lak’ ech, ala k’in.” Varying peoples in southern Africa call it “ubuntu,” while it is referred to as “kapwa” in the Philippines.
As Howard was doing criminal legal reform work in the late 1970-80’s, he traveled the world looking for alternatives to the rapidly growing carceral system in the United States. Howard developed most of his understanding of this work from the Maori, the indigenous people of modern New Zealand. Much like black, brown, and indigenous youth make up most of our juvenile justice system, Maori youth make up a majority of New Zealand’s juvenile justice system. When Maori youth are sent to juvenile court, community leaders ask the judge for permission to use their ancestral practices of addressing harm in the community instead of the punitive legal system. Embodying the value of “kotahitanga,” the Maori word for oneness, the community offers the young person love, support, and guidance in taking responsibility for their actions and for repairing any harm caused to the individual and the community as a whole.