Restorative Justice 101. From Roots to the Present and Beyond.

Happy Monday Everyone.

A balmy November day it is too.  Despite the chill of the air this morning…’s shaped up and is supposed to be sunny and around 20 degrees all week.  Nice.

With the wrapping up this week of the International Institute of Restorative Practices’ 19th World Conference in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, I’d like to introduce to those of you who are not yet aware of, the concept of Restorative Justice, or for short, RJ.  For those of you practicing, studying or who have benefited from the process and purpose of RJ, I hope that my take on this subject will somehow work to perpetuate the use and awareness of this largely underappreciated intervention.

I was introduced to Restorative Justice practices while studying Child and Youth Work at George Brown College in Toronto, ON.  One professor in particular, an experienced RJ facilitator and trainer, and who just received his Masters in Restorative Justice, Rick Kelly, encouraged us to put theory to practice and train to become RJ circle facilitators ourselves, which I did.

But what is Restorative Justice, and why did I decide to become a facilitator and advocate for such a practice?

The real roots of RJ are based on social constructs set by many Indigenous cultures.  An advocate for Indigenous issues and culture, I was once fortunate enough to sit in on and experience the teachings of Mohawk Elder, Renee Thomas-Hill.  She spoke of community, and how through supporting and working together, community was family. Children learned from the teachings of the elder women and men, as the elders, through modelling the teachings in their daily lives, were role models to the youngsters.  Very generally speaking, when someone was lead astray by addiction, illness or moral imbalances, the community, as a whole, would intervene to support the person’s journey back to health and the balance of mind, body and spirit.  The community had a chance to speak of their experiences related to the individual, and they offered the same respect and opportunity for expression of thoughts and feelings, to the troubled member of their family.

I cite from an excerpt from “Indigenous Justice Systems and Tribal Society” written by Ada Pecos Melton, to give a more detailed, and clearer representation…

“The indigenous justice paradigm is based on a holistic philosophy and the world view of the aboriginal inhabitants of North America. These systems are guided by the unwritten customary laws, traditions, and practices that are learned primarily by example and through the oral teachings of tribal elders.3 The holistic philosophy is a circle of justice that connects everyone involved with a problem or conflict on a continuum, with everyone focused on the same center. The center of the circle represents the underlying issues that need to be resolved to attain peace and harmony for the individuals and the community. The continuum represents the entire process, from disclosure of problems, to discussion and resolution, to making amends and restoring relationships. The methods used are based on concepts of restorative and reparative justice and the principles of healing and living in harmony with all beings and with nature.”4 (Melton, A. 2005)

The entire paper can be read by following this link

Restorative and reparative. Key words to describe not only the process, but the outcome of such practice.

Buried beneath the tragic history of the Indigenous people of our land as we know it…..lies the holistic approach to not only productive and prosocial community, but to justice as needed, as well.  In peeling away the external layers, the restorative justice concept identifies factors which lead to the imbalance of mind, body and spirit.  The individual is seen as a thinking, lifeful, and feeling person whose life is worth supporting through, and guiding to health and happiness.  Community opens their hearts and their minds to forgiveness and understanding, while the individual has a chance to speak, explain, and offer apology and reparation, by taking responsibility for self and actions.

It is restoring and repairing, for individual and for community.

Fast forward to the 1970’s, small town Ontario…and this is where our modern day Restorative Justice practices largely commenced in the law and society context.  Please visit Community Justice Initiatives (CJI) at to read about the Elmira Case, a scenario that lead to an inspired Probation Officer, and an open minded Judge to initiate the Restorative Justice process, change the way we think about, and view our justice system, and how it could be more effective for all.

Here also, is a link to a CBC article detailing how you can watch “The Elmira Case”, which will debut at the Grand River Film Festival.

 CJI, based out of Kitchener, Ontario is the non-profit organization which offers RJ services to the Kitchener Waterloo Region and beyond. It is here, where theory transforms into practice for me personally, as a RJ Facilitator.  If you have ever considered volunteering to make a real difference, visit their website at  to see how you can become a part of this truly lifechanging and community minded initiative.

This month, I will begin training for a volunteer position, in which I will be given the chance to form supportive and empowering relationships with young males in custody.  Through recreational activities, volunteers and youths form relationships which assist in the transition from custody to community, before, during and after the transitional period.  Keeping an open and supportive network of support after the period of custody is just as imperative to success and rehabilitation than all of the time and preparation prior to release.

Remember the concepts of pinpointing risk factors, acknowledging specific needs, taking responsibility for self and actions, restoration and reparation? This opportunity facilitated by CJI is truly the “action” of theory, and the reason I chose to continue with RJ practices.

How does this apply to home, school or work?  Have you ever punished your child for something they did, and knew they shouldn’t have?  Have you ever heard of children or youth bullying each other in the classroom or on the neighbourhood playground? What about ever feeling like you just couldn’t take one more day at the office due to poor management or slacking coworkers taking advantage of their positions?

Restorative Justice practices most certainly should, and can very easily be utilized beyond the confines of law and order, or the courthouse.

Facilitating circles or applying RJ practices is about giving victims and offenders, or the people in our social networks,  the equal right and respect to say how they feel, or to acknowledge and describe what was happening when the decision to do harm was made.  We must remember that many, many times, harm to others is not always intentional.  Even in the most violent of situations, the ripple effects of pain and suffering that extend beyond the pinpointed victim, are very rarely considered by the offender.  This is not to make excuses, or make light of any act of violence against another.  It is to realize that there are a considerable number of factors to consider in each and every action, and, like the offender at the time of the crime, we must be willing to stop and consider the factors and consequences that our actions and reactions will cause.  Being RJ minded is being open to forgiveness, and willing to give someone the chance to take specific action to atone for, and repair the damage done.  It is to believe that given the consideration and individual supports to empower others through their specific issues, is to initiate rehabilitation and lessen the chance of recidivism.  Restorative Justice is very “victim” oriented.  Unlike the present correctional system, very little consideration is given to victims of crime and the emotional, and psychological impacts of being victimized largely go unconsidered.  I’m sure you can see already, where interacting with the people in our own lives in this way, would greatly change the ways in which we speak, listen, and feel about the people and predicaments in our lives.

Instead of reacting in your usual way the next time one of the kids breaks the rules, try to view the situation from the RJ perspective.  Ask them (in a sincerely caring tone) what they were thinking, or what was happening at the time of their “offence”.  Let’s say that the kids were running around in the house (a no-no and they know it!) and an antique vase that your grandmother left to you was knocked over and broken.  Truly give them the chance to offer you insight into their mindset at the time they decided to run in the house. Let them know (in a sincerely heartfelt tone) how the “offence” impacts you, how it makes you feel to know that a beloved gift from your beloved grandmother, was now shattered on the floor in a pile of broken pieces.  Do you think that at this time, the realization of what their actions caused to happen, might perhaps be fueling their feelings of guilt and repentance?  We know that chances are, the kids did not deliberately set out to tackle the beautiful vase that great-grandma left to mom.

Discuss the implications of the action and how it can be rectified. Maybe this means working to pay off damages, or writing a letter to grandpa to say “I’m sorry” for breaking grandma’s gift to mom.

In any and all RJ situations, all people impacted by the harm, are to be given the chance to speak and to listen.  The RJ process cannot happen if all people involved are not willing to be open minded, or willing to forgive the person, for the decisions which resulted harm. Similarly, the process cannot occur if the offender is not willing to take responsibility for their actions and the consequences of such.

Take this moment to think about your thoughts and views on the RJ process.

While I realize that the above scenario may prompt many to say, “well it may work for minor things, like little things our kids do, but criminals need to be locked up and pay for what they have done!”…..some even think the same for those little things our kids do too. Many, many people today believe that “kids have got it too easy, the little criminals get slaps on the wrist and just keep committing crimes because they aren’t punished harshly enough!!”

Please consider the blatant and general contrast between Restorative Justice and our current system.

An individual commits a crime, the “punishment fits the crime” as indicated and written by our lawmakers, and the individual is sentenced to a prison term, probation or or community service.  Victims, in some serious cases are given the chance in court to read from an impact statement, about how the actions of the individual have affected them.  Case closed.

Now refer back to the Elmira Case.  Did you follow the link and read about it? Whether you did or not, here is a link to Russ Kelly’s story.  Russ is one of the key players, as at the time, in 1974, decisions fuelled by drugs and alcohol, backed up by a friend and literal “partner in crime” not only changed the way a community dealt with the effects of a crime spree, but how law enforcement and Russ Kelly himself, changed and evolved for the better……making history.  You will also read about Mark Yanzi, the Probation Officer and Judge McConnell who were both integral parts of the evolution of RJ practices locally, and around the world.

To further demonstrate the impacts of the RJ process, watch and listen as this mother talks to the family of the man who raped and murdered her daughter.  The powerful video can be seen here

Another powerful message can be seen here The magnitude of the process and how it not only reaches out to and considers both the parents of the murder victim, but one of the offenders as well, is undeniable.

Please follow the links below to read in detail about the contrasts of Restorative Justice and Canadian correctional practices

I hope that by comparing and contrasting, and having open minds to the concept and practice of Restorative Justice, that we can move forward together through lower rates of recidivism and of crime in general. Consideration and use of the RJ principles in everyday interaction, communication and relationships helps to foster understanding, acceptance and validation.

To find out more about Restorative practices, training, conferences, and education in Canada and around the world, visit the International Institute of Restorative Practices website at


Melton, A. (2005). Indigenous Justice Systems and Tribal Society by Ada Pecos Melton. Retrieved November 2, 2015, from

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