Restorative Justice

March 2nd, 2013

A First Step

Josh Brent, a football player for the Dallas Cowboys, was driving drunk in the early morning hours of Saturday, December 8, 2012. He was speeding, hit a curb, and the car flipped over. Brent’s passenger, Jerry Brown, also a football player for the Cowboys, died as a result of injuries sustained in the accident. Brent, who weighs more than 320 pounds, had a blood alcohol level that was more than double the legal limit in Texas, authorities said afterwards, registering at 0.18.

Brent and Brown were teammates at the University of Illinois, according to, and the two were rooming together again near Dallas. Brown was not yet on the active roster for the Cowboys when the accident happened, but Brent was helping him obtain his dream of playing in the NFL.

An amazing thing happened at Brown’s memorial service in Dallas, held Tuesday, December 11: Stacy Jackson, Brown’s mother, invited Brent to attend. According to Yahoo News, Jackson wanted “to be right with Josh and to express in every way she could how much they loved him and thought of him, and didn’t want to have him grieve for his loss as a friend without being included in their family.” Brent arrived at the service early, according to reports, and was even seen hugging Jackson. They walked into the service side-by-side.

Stacy Jackson may not have known it, but she had just taken the first steps in restorative justice.

What Is Restorative Justice?

Contemporary restorative justice is a “culmination of adaptations of indigenous traditions of New Zealand Maori, Canadian Aboriginal, Northern Navajo, African, Afghani and religious traditions,” writes Colleen Pawlychka, a doctoral student at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Restorative justice is a practice that seeks wholeness and healing not only for the victim, but also for the offender and the community involved. Most commonly thought of with victims of crime, restorative justice—like the example earlier—can also be used in the daily lives of people of faith. Restorative justice is also thought of as an “approach” rather than a set of hard and fast rules. Elements of that process need to address at least three key points: (1) the harm caused by the offense; (2) the needs of all the parties involved; and (3) the obligations of the offender to the parties involved, but also of the parties to the offender.

The Bible is clear that human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and are, therefore, of sacred worth. Throughout Scripture, examples exist that show, time and again, that being in a “right relationship” with God is only possible when a person is in right relationship with others (Matthew 22:34-39; Luke 10:25-37). Restorative justice offers an avenue to restoring broken relationships.

Retributive Justice

The norm in the United States right now is retributive justice. In a 2004 essay, Michelle Maiese notes that retributive justice carries the ideas of “merit” and “desert.” “We think that people should receive what they deserve,” she writes. “This means that people who work hard deserve the fruits of their labor, while those who break the rules deserve to be punished.” The word punishment is derived from the Greek poine and its Latin derivative, poena, and means “the deliberate infliction of pain on a person for the sake of attaining revenge,” explains Pawlychka. This form of justice, Maiese notes, is “backward-looking” in that punishment is dished out as a response to a past event of injustice. “It acts to reinforce rules that have been broken and balance the scales of justice.”

Maiese writes that a “dangerous tendency” with retributive justice is revenge, of getting even, of teaching others what injustice “feels like.” However, revenge seldom brings the relief that victims seek. “overly harsh punishments,” often brought on by feelings of hatred and anger as a result of revenge, “do not make society any more secure and only serve to increase the level of harm done,” she writes.

A Brief Overview

People who practice restorative justice often speak of a “continuum,” ranging from simple, informal responses that can be used in everyday life to more formal responses that involve more people and planning. In our life of faith, Christians may use “affective statements” or “affective questions” to address unwanted behaviors. An example of an affective statement is, “You really hurt my feelings when you act like that,” or “Your behavior really surprises me.” Affective questions, for example, may be, “What happened?” “What were you thinking about at the time of the incident?” or “What did you think when you realized what happened?”

The “grandfather” of restorative justice in the United States is Howard Zehr, an author and professor at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. “Injustice,” he writes, “occurs when people are turned into objects through relationships. Justice occurs when people are honored through relationships.” The current American justice system, notes Zehr, “tends to turn those who have caused harm into objects to be acted upon.” Those who have been harmed, he adds, are assumed to have no significant needs. “Restorative justice, on the other hand, recognizes that harm is done by and to human beings.” Zehr also writes that the “value that reigns supreme” in restorative justice is respect, and that all parties, including the offender, are to be treated with dignity and respect through- out the process.

A Changed Life

Restorative justice emerged in the 1970’s as a way to mediate between victims and offenders. Russ Kelly should know; he was there at the start. Kelly was a teenager in 1974 when, after a night of drinking with a friend, they went on a vandalism spree in the small Canadian town of Elmira, Ontario. Around 7:00 the next morning, police rounded them up and took them in for questioning. Kelly confessed immediately; his friend, only after learning that Kelly had. A probation officer named Mark Yantzi was assigned the case. Yantzi also volunteered with the Mennonite Central Committee in nearby Kitchener. In a meeting with other volunteers, Yantzi asked, “Wouldn’t it be neat for these offenders to meet with their victims?” And that’s exactly what happened.

“Meeting our victims was one of the hardest things I had ever done in my entire life,” says Kelly. He and his friend walked up to every victim’s front door to apologize, hear what the victims had to say, determine the amount of restitution, and ask for forgiveness. In the end, both Kelly and his friend had to pay $550 restitution and $200 in fines, along with being placed on 18 months of probation. Shortly thereafter, the first victim-offender reconciliation program was established in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. The idea quickly spread throughout North America and Europe in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Kelly’s story didn’t end with going to door-to-door to apologize. Some thirty years after the incident, Kelly, now with an injured back and seeking another line of work, was enrolled in a law and security administration program in Kitchener. A guest speaker one night brought up the subject of restorative justice and, in the process, mentioned the name of one Mark Yantzi. Kelly immediately recognized the name as his probation officer all those years ago. The speaker said they were looking for the two teenagers involved in that precedent-setting case, the first one of its kind in North America. Kelly told the speaker that he was one of the young men involved. Shortly thereafter, he and Yantzi were reunited, and together they shared the story of that case. “All this had made such an impression on me that I joined Community Justice Initiatives,” writes Kelly. He received mediation training and spent more than 250 hours volunteering in the Canadian criminal courts, touting the benefits of restorative justice. “I am not proud of what I did,” Kelly says. “However, I am extremely proud of what has become of it.”

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

comments powered by Disqus