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Growing Justice

Why understanding restorative and transformative justice on their own terms, and at their best and worst, will help us build more of both.


We need restorative justice. We need transformative justice. As we continue to grow the work of challenging punishment, carceral institutions, and relations of domination, we need approaches and practices that help us build the world we need, especially as we respond to harm and violence between people. Together, restorative justice and transformative justice provide vision and means to increase access to safety, healing, and justice. These two different justice paradigms are often conflated or even pitted against one another. Conflating the two or putting them at odds is understandable and makes for a simpler analysis. Yet doing either of these things not only misses the complex and intersecting origins, philosophies, and practices of restorative and transformative justice; it limits possibilities for growing more just approaches to relationships, harm, and violence of all kinds.

As two people committed to interpersonal and community healing and accountability, and to ending the harms of state violence, we strongly believe in growing both restorative justice and transformative justice, which for simplicity here we’ll refer to as RJ and TJ. Broadly defined, RJ and TJ are two distinct and intersecting justice paradigms, frameworks, and varied practices for responding to harm between people, and at their best they work to challenge the structural violence and oppression often at the root of interpersonal harm. At their best, both RJ and TJ are invested in non-punitive responses to harm that seek healing, accountability, and transformation while avoiding the reproduction of violence and domination core to the criminal legal system and other carceral settings.

Yet this brief definition only goes so far. To fully realize their potential, we need to understand RJ and TJ on their own terms, and in relationship with one another. We have seen RJ and TJ at their best, and we have seen them taken up in less-than-desirable forms. In naming their strengths and challenges, it becomes more possible to see the power and value of each, and to avoid some of the more harmful manifestations of RJ and TJ. In this primer, we offer a brief and very incomplete telling of the origins of RJ and TJ, along with our understanding of RJ and TJ at their best and worst. In doing so, we hope to demonstrate the liberatory possibilities of each, as well as pitfalls to avoid. 

The origin stories and the originators of RJ and TJ help illuminate their similarities and differences. The origins of RJ are connected to both Indigenous ways of understanding and doing justice and to Western yearnings for alternatives to punishment. While the history of RJ remains a matter of some debate in the RJ community, Shah and colleagues offer two distinct RJ paradigms that help to tell a more nuanced story of its development. The Indigenous paradigm, called Indigenous Peacemaking, acknowledges many Indigenous communities have been doing some version of RJ centuries before the West created the term “restorative justice.” The Indigenous paradigm sees justice as embedded in a holistic worldview in which justice and wellbeing are inextricably tied.

RJ’s Western formation began in the U.S. in the 1970s, primarily by scholars and practitioners. Many of them were white and upper-class, and they sought to make the criminal legal system more just through the development of alternatives to retributive justice. RJ in the Western paradigm developed as a relational approach to justice that understood punishment as pernicious but believed it an approach to justice that could at least theoretically be reconciled within the criminal legal system. But over the last 50 years, this strand of RJ has evolved. What began more as a social service grew into a larger justice paradigm shift, and today RJ is understood by some as a burgeoning social movement with more explicit commitments to racial justice and structural change. This evolution has meant increased respect for Indigenous Peacemaking by non-natives, as well as significant growth in RJ being practiced in communities and outside of systems — and a reckoning with the paradoxical nature of making RJ workable within harmful systems. It is our belief that the strength of RJ is deeply tied to RJ as a paradigm shift whose power and utility is made possible by social movements, not through the advancement of RJ as a service or tool.

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Like RJ, transformative justice has multiple origins stories. TJ grew out of anti-violence movements in the late 1990s and early 2000s, initiated primarily by Black women, women of color, domestic and sexual violence survivors, and queer communities, many of whom were survivors of violence. Together, they sought non-dominating, non-punitive approaches to justice entirely outside of the criminal legal system. TJ was conceived as both a relational and political approach to justice that understood punishment and the criminal legal system itself as inherently harmful. TJ’s approach thus necessitated responding to harm between people without relying on the state — the police and incarceration especially. Coming largely out different Black feminist, queer, domestic violence, organizing, and abolitionist social movements, there was an understanding that the causes of interpersonal violence were due largely to structural and state violence. With this understanding, the TJ framework assumed that the work to reduce interpersonal violence also meant challenging structural and state violence. While TJ has taken some of its ideology and practices from RJ, what makes it most distinct is its emphasis on non-state response and focus on structural and state violence.

A colleague recently shared how she understood RJ and TJ in her work: “RJ gave me the tools and TJ gave me the politics.” We would add that RJ has offered us a philosophy of justice that prioritizes relationships, healing, and care, and TJ has helped us to understand that addressing interpersonal harm without addressing systemic harm will always be insufficient. RJ has offered clearer tools to address harm — the “how do you do it” from a practical perspective — that are used by many TJ practitioners, while TJ has helped to root justice practices in the organizing efforts against root causes of violence. From our respective RJ and TJ efforts, we strongly believe that the work of supporting right relationships between people and communities is only effective when done in connection with larger social movements struggling for a society in which these relationships and communities can flourish.

No Conflation or Pitting

In our experiences practicing, teaching, and building out projects connected to RJ and TJ, we frequently hear one of two things: that RJ and TJ are essentially the same thing, or that the two are incompatible — with TJ being seen as better and more just than RJ. It is our belief that both of these understandings are inaccurate, and do a disservice towards growing our collective efforts to challenge punishment, violence, and domination and to create just and meaningful pathways to safety and justice.

We believe that RJ and TJ are two distinct and invaluable paradigms, frameworks, and varied practices, both of which we can build upon and grow. Each brings possibilities and challenges, and everyone need not actively support both. But reducing them as the same, pitting them against one another, or both, hinder our collective work. 

A colleague recently shared how she understood RJ and TJ in her work: ‘RJ gave me the tools and TJ gave me the politics.’ We would add that RJ has offered us a philosophy of justice that prioritizes relationships, healing, and care, and TJ has helped us to understand that addressing interpersonal harm without addressing systemic harm will always be insufficient.

Conflating RJ and TJ as the same thing erases their distinct lineages and clear differences. While RJ and TJ share many of the same values and practices, they each have, as noted above, their own origin story. The tendency to collapse the two may be for varying reasons — be they laziness, lack of understanding, a desire to ignore the explicit political commitments of TJ, or just a simple attraction to the word transformative, or else the name recognition of the term restorative justice. Regardless, if we are to build more of both, it is critical that we understand the differing origins and commitments of RJ and TJ, and not reduce them to the same thing. 

Pitting RJ and TJ against one another is a more understandable phenomenon given their differing origins, developments, and commitments. On the one hand, TJ espouses explicit commitments to not engaging with the state. On the other, RJ has a muddied and often contradictory relationship to the criminal legal system, leading many to see RJ as co-opted, colonized, or misaligned with the aims of social movements seeking liberation. The oft-repeated line regarding the limits of professionalized RJ — “It is not possible to restore justice to people and communities where justice never existed” — points to a real understanding of history and oppression in the U.S. and around the world.

Yet all of this misses the nuanced and deeply relational beliefs and practices that RJ is grounded in and has helped to spread. While TJ holds deep political commitments to systemic change, at times it has been less grounded in the relational transformation that RJ at its best prioritizes. We believe it’s possible to hold and grapple with these gifts and contradictions while honoring and valuing the current and historical contributions of both RJ and TJ. We believe that RJ and TJ at their best are complementary and often intersecting, and that our movements and collective work are stronger with this understanding and orientation.  

The Best of Both 

At its best, RJ is a relational paradigm and approach to justice and community. At its best, RJ in practice is about creating a relational culture that is more ready to respond to harm, and to respond with practices that meet the needs of all people involved, working to make things as right as possible. And at its best, it uplifts Indigenous Peacemaking and the holistic worldview offered by indigenous thinking; it makes space for the presence of spirituality; and it is committed to larger structural transformation and the social movements pushing for this.

The teachings and practices of RJ, from both the Indigenous and Western paradigms, have supported countless people and communities in finding healing, care, accountability, and transformation. It has helped to develop and popularize theoretical antidotes and practical solutions to the punishment paradigm that has captured and dominated legal and social institutions since this country’s founding. RJ has also given survivors another option besides retribution, and made it possible for people who have caused harm to come to terms with the harm they caused without reproducing violence and domination. RJ has made it possible to see that the line between survivor and harm doer is porous, and that most people who commit harmful behavior have themselves been harmed. While it is not the remedy to punishment and to carceral systems, RJ has played a significant role in the development of a broader set of justice practices and theories, including TJ. There are many groups doing powerful RJ work that we can look to and learn from as we grow more of RJ at its best. Just a few of these include Restorative Response Baltimore, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, Impact Justice, The Ahimsa Collective, and Common Justice.

Meanwhile, TJ, at its best, is a political framework and growing set of practices that support communities in accessing safety and justice while organizing against state violence and other forms of oppression. TJ, at its best, understands the causal connections between state violence and interpersonal violence, while advancing approaches to safety and justice that seek to end both. At its best, TJ brings the power of  justice-making back to the community, centering the people at the margins who could never rely on the state for safety, let alone justice. TJ practices at their best attends to the ways in which racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, ableism, and other forms of oppression show up in relationships and communities. That is to say, TJ attends to power in relational practices and organizing, pushing many of us to understand that part of the work must be wrestling power away from the state and back to communities. TJ teachings and practices have made it clear that justice and safety are much more intimately connected to relationships and community than to the law or punishment.

TJ attends to power in relational practices and organizing, pushing many of us to understand that part of the work must be wrestling power away from the state and back to communities. TJ teachings and practices have made it clear that justice and safety are much more intimately connected to relationships and community than to the law or punishment.

Due to its nature, ​​TJ developed more through grassroots formations and community groups rather than through nonprofits, the academy, and groups adjacent to the criminal legal system. While this meant less research, less development, and less popularization, it has allowed for organic approaches and tools that directly responded to the needs of the communities developing them. TJ practitioners have developed a wide range of practices that communities can take up in their own efforts for safety and justice, including safety planning, pod mapping, de-escalation strategies, and community accountability processes. There are a number of groups doing TJ work that we can look to and learn from as we grow more of TJ at its best including Creative Interventions, the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, Just Practice, Vision Change Win, Spring Up, and Project Nia.

The Worst of Both

RJ at its worst is when its growth, professionalization, and relationship to the criminal legal system are prioritized over its professed values and goals. At its worst, RJ avoids reckoning with its whiteness and the ways in which this has impacted its development and practice. RJ at its worst diminishes, if not entirely ignores, the Indigenous influence on RJ, does nothing to support or uplift Indigenous Peacemakers and leaders, culturally appropriates indigenous wisdom and practices, and has used indigenous peacemaking wisdom to advance its own work without acknowledgement or respect for indigenous history and traditions.

At its worst, RJ also fails to confront its complicated relationship to the criminal legal system and chooses partnership with the law — including with prosecutor’s offices and criminal courts — at the expense of and sometimes even a danger to the people it’s purporting to support. This unchecked partnership can be used to undermine the goals to end mass incarceration when used by systems actors to hide punitive practices under the umbrella of RJ. RJ has long been used in and around the criminal legal system; and while a fuller analysis of this complex relationship is beyond the scope of this primer, we do believe that RJ engaged in this way must be accountable to people at the margins and to social movements struggling for systemic change. There is a huge and perhaps incompatible divide between those who practice RJ within the context of systemic and racial justice frameworks and those who pay lip service to oppression, but have not reconciled with their own whiteness and dominance.

Meanwhile, TJ at its worst can be adversarial and prioritize politics at the expense of relationships. Balancing political and relational commitments is a challenge social movements have faced for as long as they have existed. While TJ at its best opens up this possibility, at its worst, it makes this more difficult. At its worst, TJ can fall into adversarial, coercive, and punitive community practices, replicating the carceral logics it aims to uproot. This can include treating people who have caused harm as disposable and sanctioning harmful practices in the name of TJ. One manifestation of this treatment is publicly shaming them — as a viable tactic to stop harm. While we understand the intention of this TJ practice as a way to stop harmful behavior, we have seen this have devastating consequences for the party being called out and negatively impact the interpersonal and communal possibilities for healing, accountability, and transformation. TJ at its worst allows for disposability and punitive practices in the name of justice. At its worst, TJ’s tools and its implementation have been unclear, at times involved too many facilitators, and regarded as too long and difficult to implement and uphold. We recognize that some of the challenges of implementation are due to amazing experimentation, a lack of resources, and the mammoth task of creating real safety and accountability outside the state. At its worst, TJ can be presented as the only viable option accessing safety and justice in a way that dismisses other possibilities.

Our reflections here on the best and worst of RJ and TJ are not meant to be a definitive assessment of either, much less a think piece aimed at diminishing them. Rather, these are our own reflections on the possibilities and challenges of these two intersecting approaches to safety and justice, drawn from our own experiences, study, and practice. Our arguments are incomplete, and we share these reflections with some trepidation. Our orientation, which we recognize not all will agree with, is that both RJ and TJ are valuable to our collective work, and that the more we understand their differing histories, commitments, and practices (at their best and worst), the more we will be able to grow and practice each at their best.

Some will inevitably be more drawn to RJ or TJ, and that is perfectly fine. Yet in grappling with both, we hope that more in our communities will understand them as two different, intersecting, and, at their best, complementary approaches to safety and justice — placing people and their communities, not the state or its carceral institutions, in charge of addressing conflict, harm, and abuse. Growing RJ and TJ in practice takes time, persistence, experimentation, and a willingness to let go of punitive impulses and violent systems so many of us have been conditioned to rely on. And it requires making space to grapple with the tensions, contradictions, and paradoxes in ourselves, our relationships, our communities and the practices themselves. In the end, we are interested in creating the world we want to live in and uplifting and supporting the creativity and growth of both RJ and TJ.

Image: Christina Deravedisian/Unsplash