Restorative Justice and Circle: An Explainer

In response to the United States’ crises of mass incarceration, the “school to prison pipeline,” and the racial disparities that can lead to incarceration, many teachers, academics, and activists are calling for alternative systems of discipline, or alternative systems of addressing harm in the classroom. In that effort, “Restorative Justice” (RJ) has become a popular topic that continues to pop up in legislation, experiments and programs in schools, and within prisons. But you may wonder, what does RJ entail? And how is it different than our current justice system?

In this explainer, I’ll show the difference between retributive (or punitive) and restorative justice, how restorative justice is practiced, as well as its limitations, reach, and impact globally.

A Brief History

At the core of their values, the United States, most Western nations, and victims of colonization and invasion define justice as retributive and punitive. To reach justice, punishment must be administered to the offender. “An eye for an eye” is the mantra of retribution, not a warning against it.

However, it has not always been this way globally. The indigenous peoples of North and south America, Africa, and beyond (evidence of practices reminiscent of Circle are found even in some european indigenous communities remains) respond to  harm done within their communities through restoration, not necessarily retribution, through community dialogue and discussion, one practice of which we call Circle.

The Circle practice the groups in Boston practice is most similar to the Plains Peoples of North America. In the 1990s, in response to experiencing their own incarceration crisis created by the Canadian people, First Nation communities sought alternatives to the punitive justice system of Canada that was disproportionately incarcerating Native people, and brought forward Restorative Justice and Circle practices.

What is the difference between retributive and restorative justice?

Adapted from Fraser Region Community Justice Initiatives Association

Fundamentally, the difference between a retribution (or punitive) and restoration model is where our community puts the focus after harm has been caused. After some harm in retributive justice, the emphasis of the responding party is placed on the perpetrator: what rule did they break? How do we punish them?

The response focuses on establishing blame and making the community prove the harm happened. Justice then is achieved in the familiar model of trial by jury, establishment of guilt, and then delivering the proper punishment that’s gravity, it seems to those delivering it, fits the crime.

In restorative justice, on the other hand, the person or group responsible for responding will focus on the survivor of the harm and all those affected: what do they need? What does their family need? What will help them overcome this challenge or harm?

Restorative justice does not see harm as simply broken rules, but people hurt and relationships damaged. It inherently looks at the community and the impact of the harm more holistically, where punitive justice can look at only two actors. After understanding the needs of the person harmed, justice is not necessarily sought through proving the person committed the crime, but rather through community dialogue, understanding, and reparation.

Then, justice is seen to be achieved when 1) people take responsibility for their actions,  2) people’s needs are met, or 3) healing of individuals and relationships occurs.

After a more punitive response, it is difficult to attain full acceptance back into one’s family, school, or community without a stigmatized label attached. One mission of restorative responses is to maximize the possibility of full acceptance without that label and with healing for all parties involved.

What does this look like?

So there are these great ideas of other ways to know justice, but it is unclear how to execute them. Luckily, groups like the Suffolk Center for Restorative Justice, the Harvard Divinity School Religion and Practices of Peace program, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, and many others nationwide offer trainings on Restorative Justice Practices, some of which I was lucky enough to attend! And in those trainings, my fellow classmates and I learned to keep Circle.

To begin, there are multiple kinds of Circles, including those to simply build community and trust, and those to address harm. Each Circle is unique and must be adapted and edited to meet the needs of the situation and the group. *As a disclaimer, this is not an endorsement to practice harm Circles, and you should not without training.*

Circle is the process that facilitates community dialogue and understanding that enables  reparations and healing for justice to be reached in a restorative way. To do this, a keeper (or facilitator, the words are used interchangeably), speaks with all parties affected individually. While speaking with the parties (and identifying that no further harm or violence will come from the circle, that the parties all acknowledge wrongdoing in some way, and that all parties are willing to be there), she invites them to circle.

With a group of ideally about 15 sitting in a circle with no tables between them, and a centerpiece (often a circular cloth, a plant, some water, a candle, and rocks to represent earth), the keeper will open the circle. To ceremonially begin sets the tone of the space, grounds the group, and puts the participants into the Circle mindset.

Then, the Circle begins. If is the group’s first circle, they collectively decide on values and guidelines for how the circle goes. The facilitator will then start with prompts she asks the group. She can start and answer the prompt herself, setting the tone for Circle, or pass along the talking piece for someone else to start first. Each Circle has a talking piece, an object that grants the holder the ability to speak. While someone has the talking piece, everyone else listens. This enables each person to feel as if they have a voice that is valued, and that they have the ear of their community who will listen to and absorb their stories and concerns.  

Sometimes (quite frequently), holding the Circle, hearing the person who caused harm admit to causing that harm in front of the community, can be enough for the person who was harmed and their people to be satisfied and require no further action. Other times, the group will come to the conclusion that more action is needed, more Circles must be had, or reparations beyond dialogue are necessary to enable healing.

But aren’t there limits?

When I first began engaging in the restorative justice space, I always believed there to be limits. I would think, “I couldn’t get in a room and hold Circle with someone who killed someone I loved” or “sexual abuse and sexual assault are beyond restoration.” I knew this process was not for all crimes.

However, Sujatha Baliga, the Executive Director of the Restorative Justice Project at Impact Justice (a national innovation and research center focused on justice reform) has built her career on the foundation that there are no limits for the types of acts that can be forgiven, from abuse to murder.  

She tells her own story of experiencing relentless sexual abuse as a young person, moving through life carrying and motivated by a deep anger, and how she experienced transformation through forgiveness in this interview. Initially motivated to lock away all sexual abusers, now she advocates for and deeply believes in the power of restorative justice, Circle, and forgiveness to heal those who have been harmed and those who have harmed.

However, addressing a different restriction, there are limits to what one person can hold. It could be incredibly taxing and emotionally damaging to the facilitator or keeper to listen to trauma and pain on one-on-one discussions over and over. Yet, in Circle, the facilitator is decentralized, and the trauma, pain, and harm expressed is not held by one person, but by the group. This decentralized group listening removes the bulk of the burden from the keeper, and distributes it throughout the Circle in a way that enables healing for all through listening, empathy, and support as well as a strengthened bond through intimate experience shared openly.

Are there other applications?

Circle does not need to be only held when harm occurs. For example, in this video shown at RJOY’s training, you can see after harm, a young man uses Circle to re-enter school. In another shown by Suffolk Center for Restorative Justice, the process builds community and trust between participants and acts as a apparatus of support. Circle has been even practices among youth as young as kindergarten. The goal is not only alternative forms of justice, but also to enable social emotional learning in students and develop trust and support within a community.

Does it really work?

Yes! New Zealand has found success implementing restorative justice in their juvenile justice system, completely transforming the process, dropping their youth incarceration from over 6000 children and young people yearly to less than 2000. While the US government did not find large reductions in recidivism or expulsion, individual schools have found success with Circle and RJ practice, almost completely eliminating expulsion and greatly reducing suspension rates.

But why does it matter?

As the inspiration for this explainer touches on, the criminal justice system in the United States is horrific, dehumanizing, and racist among many other things. It is unbelievable an institution like this exists and that we stand for it (until I remember the crimes we commit daily, the water in Flint, children in cages, etc…). As we push forward with a retributive justice model as a society, we perpetuate that dehumanization of incarcerated folks, which because of racial disparities as Michelle Alexander explains, ends up looking a lot like a thinly veiled re-incarnation of slavery.

Often an afterthought, juvenile justice in the US looks similarly dismal. The School to Prison Pipeline becomes more deeply ingrained into our society, it is essential to re-assess the values that define the systems we build, and search for and implement other, equitable, restorative-over-punitive systems to transform our justice system, to remember that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Information from Living Justice Press, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth