In 1999 the eminent criminologist John Braithwaite warned us in his keynote address at our first large event, the North American Conference on Conferencing, that restorative justice will never become a mainstream practice unless we can show that it has the capacity to reduce crime.
Our 18-month evaluation of police-led restorative conferences with young offenders in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, published in 1998, showed only mixed success in reducing crime.
Although we did find that violent offenders participating in conferences had lower rearrest rates than violent offenders who declined to participate, this was not true for property offenders.
We hypothesized that a restorative community using a variety of restorative practices over a period of time with young people might achieve better outcomes than individual conferences.
My 1999 paper, “Restorative Justice in Everyday Life: Beyond the Formal Ritual,” made the case for the systematic use of restorative practices, not just isolated events.
I wrote, “If systems are not innately restorative, then they cannot hope to affect change simply by providing an occasional restorative intervention. Restorative practices must be systemic, not situational. You can’t just have a few people running conferences and everybody else doing business as usual. You can’t be restorative with students but retributive with faculty. You can’t have punitive police and restorative courts.”
I concluded that, “To reduce the growing negative subculture among youth, to successfully prevent crime and to accomplish meaningful and lasting change, restorative justice must be perceived as a social movement dedicated to making restorative practices integral to everyday life.”
Our CSF Buxmont schools and group homes had already made restorative practices integral to the everyday life of our students — creating what researcher Paul McCold called a “restorative milieu.”
From 1999 to 2006, we conducted three research studies with almost 4,000 delinquent and at-risk students discharged from CSF Buxmont’s restorative schools.
The outcomes were impressive.
Offending was reduced by 58% in the first evaluation of 919 youth, reduced by 50% in the second evaluation of 858 youth, and reduced by 62% in the third evaluation of 2151 youth.
Importantly, the reduced offending persisted over time.
Furthermore, the research found improved pro-social attitudes and increases in self-esteem among students who spent a few months in our restorative community.
The results were similar among all of our six and later eight schools — so our restorative culture was not limited to particular personalities or places.
How do we promote this phenomenon of the restorative community and where might it be useful?
You can start with a circle in your own family, among friends, in your workplace, in your classroom.
A woman attending our graduate school reported that she had introduced check-in and check-out circles at gatherings of her female relatives.
Her family loved the new ritual because it guaranteed that quieter individuals were not lost in the hustle and bustle of socializing and that everyone who attended had a chance to speak and be acknowledged.
A former CSF Buxmont student was concerned about the conflicts at his workplace so he helped his employer resolve and avoid disputes by organizing circles.
A teacher was frustrated by her school administrator’s lack of interest in restorative practices but was able to transform her own classroom community and help a few of her fellow teachers to do the same.
Of course, holding circles doesn’t itself guarantee a full-fledged restorative community but circles often provide the first step to “a sense of belonging.”
Journalist Kerra Bolton wrote, “I believe that creating a sense of belonging, providing a pathway to making decisions, and offering a sound process to resolve conflicts are vital to the success of a restorative community.”
Sense of belonging, participatory decision-making and conflict resolution.
These three essential elements of a restorative community were identified by Bolton in her 2022 book, “Restorative Communities: From Conflict to Conversation.”
Four years earlier I had invited Bolton, whose op-eds I had read on the CNN website, to write about restorative practices for my Building a New Reality website.
She knew little about restorative practices at the time, but that was perfect.
I wanted her to employ her fresh perspective and her journalistic skepticism to examine the emerging field of restorative practices and share her experiences with a wide audience.
I intended that, after getting acquainted with various restorative practices, she would explore the implications of using them in an intensive way to create “restorative community in a new reality.”
I have defined six facets of a new reality, each representing a broad category of society’s needs and activities: learning, governance, care, justice, enterprise and spirit.
We can use the six facets as a roadmap to track where we restorative practitioners have been and to preview where we may want to go.
The facets also represent a framework for action.
Our strategy is to locate challenges on our societal map, implement models that respond to those challenges, assess the outcomes, make modifications as needed and take more actions.
Along the way we must tell people what we and others are doing so they can get involved.
Underlying every facet of the new reality is decentralized power and decision-making in the form of restorative practices.
From Detroit, Michigan to Kortrijk, Belgium, Kerra Bolton visited a variety of restorative communities.
“Imagine a place where municipal court staff comes together to calmly address employee conflicts before those staff members interface with the general public who arrive at the courthouse doors on what could be the worst day of their lives.
“What about a place where workers burn their annual employment contract at the end of the year as a symbolic reminder that their work is more than a paycheck?
“Or what if your child attended a school where parents, teachers, and community members were co-creators of a rich learning environment where the student guides the educational process?”
Kerra Bolton had begun to transition from wary skeptic to enthusiastic observer when she contacted me during her first visit to Detroit, an aspiring restorative city.
She said, “This is sacred work.”
She was deeply moved by the grassroots effort she encountered and the people who are leading it.
In her blog on my Building a New Reality website Bolton wrote about Henry McClendon.
“McClendon is a humble man who dreams and acts audaciously. McClendon heard about IIRP in 2008 and urged the organization to visit Detroit after the shooting of a public school student. Since then, he has succeeded in using trainings to pollinate restorative practices in Detroit’s public schools, police departments, social services, health agencies, and even in the court system. His ultimate goal is to transform Detroit, once known for its crime, violence, and poverty, to become America’s first ‘Restorative City.'”
Bolton wrote a series of BANR blogposts about Detroit.
She subsequently returned to Detroit with Cassidy Friedman, a San Francisco-based filmmaker, to make Detroit Rising: How The Motor City Becomes A Restorative City, a series of award-winning short films that follow Bolton as she engages with the Black grassroots leaders who have implemented restorative practices in nearly every sector of the city.
I also asked Bolton to visit and write about Kortrijk, Belgium, a half a world away from Detroit and a three-hour train ride from Paris or Amsterdam.
Nonprofit leaders in Kortrijk are partnering with city officials to implement restorative practices in programs, services, and public spaces that help troubled youths and their families.
Oranjehuis, a youth-serving agency that uses restorative practices, and Ligand, its training affiliate, have expanded from their core mission to explore a variety of restorative projects.
Perhaps most dramatic are their experiments with organizational management.
Bolton wrote after her visit:
“What if you went to work tomorrow and there was no boss? What if there was no one person to set the vision and mission of the company and assign duties accordingly? What if there wasn’t a single person who measured your performance and determined your pay, based on how well you met the boss’s quarterly objectives? What if you could choose the job responsibilities for which you were best suited, rather than straining to conform to the dictates of a job description?
“Together-management, [often called horizontal management] happens through an interdependent network of autonomous teams. There are no hierarchies, job descriptions, job titles, or bosses. Decision-making is highly distributed among the group. Everyone is given access to all information at the same time. Disagreements are resolved among peers, using a well-defined conflict resolution process. Peers hold each other accountable to shared commitments.”
Sabine Bourgeois, director of Oranjehuis, said, “When you have one leader, it makes the organization vulnerable. It’s hard to have one leader and not have it be an obstacle for the organization to grow and develop.”
Together-management demonstrates the restorative premise that “people are happier, more productive and cooperative, and more likely to make positive changes in behavior when those in authority do things with rather than to or for them.”
It simply doesn’t get more “with” than at Ligand.
When Stijn Deprez and his staff eliminated his leadership position in Ligand, you might say that they abolished authority.
But instead they distributed authority to a group of thoughtfully collaborative individuals.
In Kerra Bolton’s book, she suggested that restorative communities are likely to have at least two or more of the following characteristics:
1. Decentralized power and participatory decision-making are sewn in the fabric of their organizational or community culture. It’s how they “do” things.
2. Restorative practices are adopted in at least half of the six facets of societal needs – Learning, Governance, Care, Justice, Enterprise, and Spirit.
3. Implementing restorative practices comes from the community. It isn’t a government program subject to annual budgets and political whim.
4. Restorative practices are cross-pollinated throughout the community. For example, police departments use restorative practices to engage the community, even in schools and neighborhoods where restorative practices are already embedded.
5. There are regular and frequent opportunities to learn about or strengthen one’s restorative practices knowledge through workshops and classes.
One of the most extraordinary people Kerra Bolton met in her explorations was Alice Thompson.
Thompson is a highly respected civic leader and advocate for children and families in Detroit.
She has since retired as CEO of Black Family Development, a leading social service agency in the city.
Thompson boiled down the essence of a restorative community to having a key ingredient — a restorative heart.
“A restorative heart,” Ms. Thompson says. “is a caring heart. It’s a heart that believes and trusts in other people. It is a heart that listens. It’s a heart that communicates. A restorative heart says, ‘working together, we can make a difference.’”