Why We Need to Move Towards a Transformative Model of Justice

by Azizamosi Henry

In her infamous book Are Prisons Obsolete? scholar-activist Angela Davis asserts that “[Prison] relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.” as people who commit crimes are relegated to separate spaces to individually atone for their crime. Missing is an analysis or even recognition of systemic forces that affect an individual’s behavior and decisions. Retribution is at the center of our American criminal justice system, as punishment is prioritized as a consequence for wrongdoing. However, the lack of consideration of the desires and healing of the victim(s) and a dismissal of external factors that may contribute to someone committing a crime keeps justice-involved individuals within cycles and patterns of law-breaking and harm.

Alternative Ideals of Justice: Restorative and Transformative Justice

Restorative Justice (RJ) and Transformative Justice (TJ) are both ideals of dealing with harm that center the victim, prioritize the healing of all parties involved, and include the community in which the harm occurred within and effects. However, while both stress communication and dialogue on top of accountability, Transformative Justice specifically considers systemic issues. TJ aims to respond to larger societal issues as opposed to just dealing with justice on an individual level. Let’s dive into each philosophy a bit deeper.

Restorative Justice: Going beyond the criminal justice system

Restorative Justice by definition is a philosophy of justice that conceptualizes justice as a “repair” to the harm caused by an instance of crime and conflict as opposed to equating justice with “punishment” (Pointer 2021). It focuses on restoring the role of the community within the system of justice.

While restorative justice as a term was popularized in North America in the 70s and 80s by indigenous communities, including Native Americans, Maori, Samoans, and Celts have been employing these strategies for centuries (Consedine 1995 and Gelsthorpe and Morris 2022 cited in Leonard 2022). The now popularized version of restorative justice practices include the use of community-based initiatives. The aim of these initiatives is to empower victims and communities to reconcile harm done and repair lives and relationships, while ensuring that offenders are held accountable. Such initiatives include, victim-offender mediation, restorative conferences between the victim, community members, and the offender, sentencing circles, and victim impact panels which emphasize the rights of the offender while also centering repair of harm caused to the victim (Daly and Immarigeon cited in Leonard 2022).

Studies show that the benefits of restorative justice are great and lead to outcomes that positively impact society, victims, and offenders. These benefits include:

  • Substantial reductions in repeat offending for some offenders (for adults, more than prison, for youth, just as much as prison)
  • Helps to reduce the costs of criminal justice through diversion from the system
  • Provides both victims and offenders with more satisfaction than traditional criminal justice
  • Reduced crime victims’ post-traumatic stress symptoms and the related costs
  • Reduces crime victims’ desire for violence as retribution against their offenders

While Restorative Justice provides a great alternative to the criminal justice system in regards to outcomes, some scholars argue that it doesn’t go far enough and lacks a lens that interrogates how external forces affect and influence violence, who is a victim, and what the responses are to that specific incidence of harm.

Transformative Justice: Centering multiply marginalized communities

Transformative Justice situates harm/violence/abuse and offenders in the context of their socio-political and economic environments which includes taking into account the effects and influences of racism, cissexism, ableism, and heteropatriarchy. Transformative Justice was created by marginalized communities (black, brown, immigrant, queer and trans, disabled, survivor communities) because the members of these communities often cannot call on the police or rely on the criminal justice system to remedy harm and conflict lest they inadvertently cause more harm. Additional harm and/or a reproduction of violence is seen as a byproduct of the criminal justice system for oppressed communities as they are already under hyper surveillance and disproportionately targeted and placed within the criminal justice system. For instance, if an undocumented person is experiencing domestic violence, calling law enforcement on the person who did them harm will most likely get them implicated in the justice system as well. Additionally, the consequences the offender may face will not necessarily be in the victim’s best interest and may cause more harm.

Systems Thinking in Transformative Justice

Transformative Justice understands that violence is linked to systems and conditions such as capitalism, poverty, white supremacy, xenophobia, war, ableism, and mass incarceration (Mingus 2019). Additionally, TJ goes a step further, beyond merely addressing wrongs and harm done to victims and their communities, but trying to prevent them from happening in the future. TJ is also unique in that it understands how communities can perpetuate the same harms as the criminal justice system, as many communities, especially those in American society where values of retribution, personal responsibility, and individualism reign, internalize the rhetoric, values, and tactics of the criminal justice system including but not limited to shame, blame, revenge, and isolation (Mingus 2019). Many of us believe that those who do us harm should face the harshest consequences possible in order to deter future crime and as a source of payback. It also makes space for understanding the complex situations that victims and survivors often find themselves in as they cannot confide in their communities lest they also face shame, blame, or violence as opposed to understanding and support. Having a holistic and systemic view of why and how harm shows up in our lives, we are then better equipped to move to offer assistance in a victim’s healing.

Works Cited

[“[Prison] relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”
— Angela Davis