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Making amends
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 12/15/2008

1205restore Among the history behind the celebration, Thanksgiving is also associated with long lines: at grocery stores, airports and train stations, and especially the shopping malls. This year, those busy days of last-minute holiday scrambling were also a time of hope and celebration for people of all ages across the globe.

Each November, communities around the world recognize International Restorative Justice Week to raise awareness about an alternative model for responding to crime. Restorative justice, which be applied in many ways, emphasizes both victim involvement in the justice process, and offender accountability by them making amends to their community.

“If you do not have a system with healing in it, it will ultimately be destructive to society,” says Emmett Solomon, executive director of the Texas-based Restorative Justice Ministries Network. His organization ministers to offenders, crime victims and their families, and to correctional employees as well.

“Our belief is if you bring healing to our current justice system you are creating a restorative environment,” he adds.

Restorative justice emphasizes more on the harm created when a crime is committed, instead of the laws that were broken. The offender takes responsibility for their actions, and the victim may take a central role in the process by receiving an apology or reparation from the offender. According to Solomon, establishing a direct or indirect dialogue between the offender and victim is crucial to this concept.

“With restorative justice you ask the question, ‘Now that this crime has broken the peace, how can the peace of this community be restored?’” Solomon explains. “How can this victim have their autonomy restored? What will it take? Those are all healing questions that the current system does not ask.”

To bring those questions front and center, 18 countries joined the celebration this year, from Ireland to South Africa to New Zealand to Canada, where the philosophy is especially prominent. Restorative practices differ from country to country. In the U.S., many courts, and especially schools, utilize the model for non-violent and misdemeanor offenses. It is widely deemed unsuitable for drug offenses, sexual assault and domestic violence.

In the process, victims and offenders can meet face-to-face in the presence of a trained mediator. For incarcerated offenders, such meetings can be difficult to arrange due to limits on visitors.

“When families of prisoners and victims get to dealing with the system they’re always frustrated,” Solomon says. “It’s difficult to make these connections considering the security restrictions that facilities have to have.”

Through restorative conferencing, a meeting between offenders, victims, and their families or friends occurs, and the consequences of the crime and solutions to best repairing the harm are discussed. Restorative justice programs such as peer courts are especially common in the juvenile justice system. These programs hold young offenders accountable through community service determined by a jury of their peers.

“We encourage anything that will bring healing to our justice system,” Solomon says.

Restorative practices are also gaining recognition in the academic community. This June, the Pennsylvania-based International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) Graduate School held its first commencement ceremony, conferring 14 masters degrees: five in restorative practices and education and nine in restorative practices and youth counseling.

The IIRP began offering the degrees in restorative practices to educators, youth-serving and criminal justice professionals and others in 2006.

Now armed with an emerging field of study and a global network, restorative justice scholars and practitioners seem to be building an impressive base to take on a daunting mission. Changing how the world looks at crime and healing might seem like an overwhelming task, but Solomon is keeping things in perspective.

“If we don’t ever start it,” he says, “how are we going to change it?”

Related Resources:

More on restorative justice

See how one community celebrated



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