We know the justice system is biased by inequality. The best justice money can buy. And the locations where this justice system is carried out – courtrooms, classrooms, living rooms, workplaces – are filled with people labeled with roles of unequal status: the judge and the accused, the cop and the criminal, the parent and the child, the perpetrator and the victim, the boss and the worker, the teacher and the student. These roles and locations carry with them social and cultural capital that privileges one over another and support dynamics of “power over” and “power under.”
What if there was an alternative way of engaging with conflict where we could sit in a circle face to face as equals instead of in rows facing the one most powerful? Where role labels are stripped away and the cultural trappings enforcing domination gone?
This alternative justice system exists in a variety of forms knows as restorative justice and restorative practices. I’d like to tell you about one approach I am familiar with: Restorative Circles.
The Restorative Circle (RC) Process is rooted in the restorative justice movement and the insights of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). More specifically it is based on the work of Dominic Barter, who has been implementing Restorative Circles in Brazilian schools and courts to provide young people and others alternatives to punitive outcomes.
We start with establishing a Restorative System within a community we define: a school, a family, a neighborhood, an organization. To establish a Restorative System means we set the context in which Restorative Circles can be effective: key people in the community support the use of Restorative Circles as a means of dealing with conflict, the community is informed, facilitators are trained in the process, and community members know how to initiate the process.
With the Restorative System in place, the Restorative Process begins with someone calling others to a Circle based on a specific act that has taken place. The facilitator meets with the caller of the Circle and independently with the others who need to be present to resolve the issue. These include not only the person who did the act in question and the receiver of that act, but also people of their community who are impacted by the act. Depending on the act and the community that may mean friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, teachers, principals, social workers, police, etc.
Community participation is a key feature of Restorative Circles. The community not only is impacted by the act and its consequences, but also shares responsibility for how the act came to occur, how the meaning of the act will be interpreted, and what actions will take place to help restore the fabric of connections in the community.
When the facilitator has talked with all the prospective participants, the Restorative Circle itself is scheduled. The Restorative Circle meeting goes through three phases, with the facilitator supporting the participants in listening and expressing themselves in a dialogue with others. First, mutual comprehension: each person answers the question “What do you want to have known and by whom about how you are right now in relation to the act and its consequences?” Second, self-responsibility: each person answers the question “What would you like known, and by whom, about what you were looking for at the moment you chose to act (or react)?” Third, the Circle discusses and agrees on an action plan, which is written down and made known to the wider community in the Restorative System.
How is this about classism? We sit as equals – no privilege for our wealth or our roles. We all share the opportunity to speak and be heard as we want to be heard. We seek mutual understand and, from that shared understanding, set a plan of action agreed by all that is intended to help to restore what may have been painfully broken – a sense of connection to ourselves and our communities. Connection is made when we hear each other’s pain – when have direct feedback about how our actions impact others. And connection is made when those others witness our humanity – an understanding of what led us to take the actions we have taken. Connection is made when the community shares the responsibility for the context in which the past actions took place – as Dominic Barter says, “Every Circle is at least 500 years old” – and shares responsibility for the restorative actions to come.
Hope and greater equality emerge as we grow into our shared understanding that we live in an interconnected community of people who can care about each other rather than one that is focused on personal advantage, revenge or labeling others as enemies to be overcome
The retributive (punishment) model of justice is rooted in class patterns of domination. Someone has power over: the power to reward or punish. By whose rules? By the owner’s rules. Rewards and punishments support inequality. When we blame others, we deny our responsibility and we foster disconnection. When we share responsibility, we become curious about how to construct a world that more effectively meets people’s needs.
Jerry Koch-Gonzalez is Class Action’s long-time board president. He teaches Nonviolent Communication, sociocracy, and cross-class dialogue.
For more information about restorative practices read The Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zher and visit the website of the International Institute for Restorative Practices.