Here is a transcript of Howard Zehr's remarks on the "Innovative and Effective Responses to Crime and VIolence" panel that was held at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty conference last month:
Working on the death penalty is important, but we’ve got to go much wider and deeper. As long as the conversation is all around should we execute or not, we are not going to get anywhere. We really need to be asking and get people to be asking, “Should we be punishing people and if so under what conditions?” What about the victims? Are we serving the victims in this criminal justice process? This adversarial assumption that we have: is it really true that so-called victims and so-called offenders have no interests in common? I think it’s really important to ask those questions.
Then, it’s my belief that you have to offer an alternative, something positive. That’s what I’ve seen with Restorative Justice, so I decided that I would devote my time to Restorative Justice as a way of promoting the kind of dialogue I just described. So I spend a lot of time in communities having conversations.
I don’t have time to explain very much of what I mean by Restorative Justice, but I’ll say a word. The Criminal Justice system basically revolves around three questions: what laws are broken, who did it, and what should we do with them. Restorative Justice is trying to get people to think about a different set of questions: who’s been hurt in this situation, what are their needs, and whose obligations are they?
A basic principle or assumptions of Restorative Justice is: what matters is the harm that was done, not the rules or laws that were broken but the harm that was done, and if that’s true, then victims have to be central. We ought to be trying to address the cluster of needs that I call victims’ justice needs. My experience is that when we address those needs, victims move on their journey more easily. When survivors get stuck it’s often because their needs aren’t met.
… I think Restorative Justice is great as a way to get people discussing what matters to them. I think when it’s practiced right, it’s wonderful. But I think there are a lot of challenges, and one of the challenges that worries me the most is that we aren’t living up to our promise to victims. We claim that Restorative Justice is victim centered, but are we in practice? If we look at the system, it is so offender-driven, and so many of us, like myself, come to this work from an offender orientation. Are we actually living up to our promise to victims? I think that’s the challenge to all of us.