This is a brief overview of what I’ve read about indigenous peoples’ practices of justice. It is in no way representative of the many diverse native cultures and faith traditions from which restorative justice takes root.
Restorative justice is not new. Well, the name is new, and its practice in the Western world (the colonized Western world) was not born until the 1970s with the “Kitchener experiment” in Ontario, Canada. This “experiment” was conducted by a probation officer who arranged for two teenagers to meet directly with the twenty-two people whose property they had vandalized which ended with the teens agreeing to restitution. But, the roots of restorative thinking can be found in various faith traditions and indigenous cultures dating back centuries.Therefore, we will be diving into the justice practices of a few indigenous peoples’ communities to get a feel for what restorative justice looks like when practiced as a lifestyle rather than an alternative to the United States’ criminal justice system. To do this, we will be following some of the findings from Robert Ross’s book, Returning to the Teaching: Exploring Aboriginial Justice, in which he lays down some underlying themes from his time as a non-native person speaking with Aboriginal people, mostly the Cree and Ojibway First Nations in northwestern Ontario.
The first principle that Ross describes is that "justice involves far more than what you do after things have gone wrong ... instead it involves creating the social conditions that minimize such wrongdoing." A strong healthy community is the bedrock to justice in many indigenous communities, while the Western world might see it merely as a response to wrongdoing. Robert Yazzie, a retired Chief Justice of the Navajo (also known as Dine) Nation Supreme Court, states, “I always say that America responds to crime after the fact, not before the fact.” Therefore, most of the justice work done by the Navajo is rooted in prevention meant to maintain harmony and balance in the community.
Leanne Douglas is the coordinator of the Biiaaban program that is run in the Mnjikaning First Nation community in Ontario, Canada, which works with people who have committed wrongdoing and the people who have been affected by wrongdoing. She states, “If somebody was acting out and not behaving properly, it meant that they were out of balance and that they needed to be brought back into balance. When we talk about balance and harmony within the community I think it comes from that.” By making the principles of balance and harmony the first priority of justice, more time and resources are spent strengthening the community rather than responding to breaches of relationships.
The second principle laid down by Ross is that, “Aboriginal teachings speak of all things in the universe as part of a single whole, interconnected through relationships. The whole includes the physical and the spiritual. Realizing the interrelationships among humans, the Earth and the spiritual builds healthy relationships, which are the foundations of a harmonious society.” Looking at the world from the communal rather than the individual is integral to many aspects of some indigenous folks’ experience, which goes directly against the individualistic philosophy of the colonial Western world. Judge Joseph Flies-Away, formerly chief judge for the Hualapai Tribal Court from 1996 to 1998, states that when someone commits a criminal act, “People say, ‘He acts like he has no relatives” which means that the purpose of law,then, is to bring people back into the fold.” He continues, “People do the worst things when they have no ties to people. Tribal court systems are a tool to make people connected again.” As James Zion, a colleague of Robert Yazzie who has been involved with Indian law since 1975 states, “People are not simply individuals in society. Everyone owes special obligations to others.”
The third, and the final principle we will be examining, that Ross summarizes is, “According to traditional teachings, people will always have different perceptions of the truth and the events that occurred. From this perspective, the truth has more to do with each person's reaction to and sense of involvement with the events in question, for that is what is truly real to them. Thus, objectivity is an illusion and the question of the seriousness of the crime a futile one. The focus of justice, then, is to address the harm done and the causes of the wrongdoing, rather than the severity or the details of the offence.” This is a hefty principle, but each element in it shows how fundamentally different certain types of indigenous peoples' justice are from the adversarial criminal justice system of the West which makes a point of finding the facts and punishing accordingly. This principle also draws from the Navajo concept of K’e, or respect, which is essential to the peacemaking process and what Justice Robert Yazzie states, “means to restore my dignity, to restore my worthiness.” From this perspective of restoration of dignity, we honor all those involved in the justice process more than we honor some agreed upon “truth”.
What struck me most during my (very) short time researching various indigenous peoples' systems of justice was that those I've found are WAY more hardcore than the United States’ criminal justice system. People tend to view restorative justice as a fluffy, altruistic, or even non-realistic alternative to the “tough on crime” criminal justice model of the United States. But this system is not about taking responsibility, as, for example, I learned at temporary staff member Meg Mott’s talk on the Sixth Amendment that more than 95% of felony charges end in plea bargains simply because it’s easier for the defendant than going to trial. No one in our “tough on crime” system is being forced to reckon with what they have done in any real way, therefore there is no accountability and recidivism is high.
Leanna Douglas, the coordinator of the Biidaaban justice program, summarizes why indigenous justice is much “tougher” than the criminal justice system: “When you go to the court system, people in the community really don’t know what’s going on there. But when it’s public and in the community then everybody knows and it can act like a community watch program. So people know that people are watching them and that they need to behave properly. [The people who commit the wrongdoing] are frightened about facing the community. They took responsibility for what they did and apologized, but it was definitely a frightening experience—a lot more frightening than standing in court and not having to say anything.” The United States criminal justice system allows the sense of isolation and individuality to flourish while both Aboriginal and restorative justice creates an environment where accountability is borne out of a recognition of one’s responsibility to the community of which one is apart of.
 The words Aboriginal, native, indigenous, and indian are used in this blog post to describe folks that belong to communities who have lived on their respective lands before Western colonization. Most of my use of these words come from the articles I reference, but it’s important to recognize that different folks have different words they use to describe their people.
 Staff, IIRP. “3. History.” IIRP, www.iirp.edu/defining-restorative/history.
 Leung, May. “The Origins of Restorative Justice.” Www.cfcj-Fcjc.org, 4 Apr. 2001, www.cfcj-fcjc.org/sites/default/files/docs/hosted/17445-restorative_justice.pdf.
 Navajo is a name given to the Dine Nation by the Spaniards and the Federal government. The nation voted on changing the name to Dine in 2017, but ultimately decided to stick with the name of Navajo to not confuse community members. This information was taken from this article: https://www.indianz.com/News/2017/04/19/navajo-nation-council-rejects-bill-to-ch.asp.
 Mirsky, Laura. “Restorative Justice Practices of Native American, First Nation and Other Indigenous People of North America: Part One.” IIRP, www.iirp.edu/news/restorative-justice-practices-of-native-american-first-nation-and-other-indigenous-people-of-north-america-part-one#endnote1_to.
 Mirsky, Laura. “Restorative Justice Practices of Native American, First Nation and Other Indigenous People of North America: Part Two.” IIRP, www.iirp.edu/news/restorative-justice-practices-of-native-american-first-nation-and-other-indigenous-people-of-north-america-part-two.
Hi everyone! Again, or for the first time, I’m Grace and I’m the new Americorps VISTA at BCJC. I’ll be writing blog posts bi-weekly on various topics related to Restorative Justice and our work here at BCJC. Here are my four takeaways from the talks given by various organizations on the opioid crisis:
We Can’t Arrest, Hate, or Institutionalize Our Way Out of This Crisis
This was a notion that was impressed upon by all of the facilitators and speakers during the talks. Treating people with force- throwing them out of buildings or businesses or kicking them off the streets and into the jail cell- just doesn’t work. In true restorative fashion, both the police and the hospital have a no arrest policy for those who call 911 and are admitted to the hospital because of an overdose through a Good Samaritan law passed in 2013. Instead, those admitted to Brooks Memorial Hospital will have access to a Recovery Coach from Turning Point (there is one stationed in the emergency room 24/7), harm reduction training put on by the hospital, and information on how to be admitted to the HUB at the Brattleboro Retreat. This system, in part, is thanks to the work done by Project CARE, a collective of organizations that was put together by the Brattleboro Police Department in response to their realization that arresting those experiencing substance use disorder, one more time for emphasis, just doesn’t work.
Community Members Are Part of the Solution
There’s a ton that those in the community that aren’t experiencing substance use disorder can do. One of the first things you can do is familiarize yourself with the signs of an opioid overdose and the administration of NARCAN. This was a 20-minute presentation, so I won’t try to explain it all here. I’ve included links in the resource section with more information, but the main things to look for in an overdose are blue fingernails and lips, slow or stopped breathing, and that the person is unresponsive. Try to wake them up by rubbing your knuckles into their sternum before resorting to the administration of NARCAN.
Second, you can change the way you talk and think about people who are experiencing substance use disorder. At the talks, another thing that was frequently brought up was the stigma that is associated with substance use, and how this creates barriers between people and recovery. So, instead of “addict” you could use “person with substance use disorder,” instead of “oh, don’t worry, she’s clean” use “she’s currently not using substances,” avoid the use of the word “abuse” all together if you can. The first two are examples of person-first language, which is one of the main tactics of the project to de-stigmatize substance use disorder. I’ve included more on this in the resource section.
Finally, do your best to humanize those living with substance use disorder. This can be done with the use of person-first language, making eye contact with those on the street that you might think are experiencing the disorder, and reading/hearing stories of recovery. An opportunity to do this is coming up with “A Beautiful Journey: Stories of Recovery” October 3rd at the Latchis Theatre where people in recovery share their stories, and how you, as community members, can support them.
COSU’s 9 Themes
The Windham County Consortium on Substance Use (COSU) presented at the Wednesday talk and gave 9 themes that they gathered from 30 forums and focus groups they conducted throughout the county centered around the crisis. Here they are:
Full Community Approach Needed
See section above.
This is a complex issue. Throughout their research, COSU has found that a combination of racism, poverty, lack of housing, isolation, and other issues came together to create this crisis.
Stigma and Discrimination
A lot of people expressed that they were discriminated against when applying for housing, jobs, and essential life needs because of their past substance use. We must make society “recovery-ready” so that those who have been helped and are ready to re-integrate into the community can do so.
Harm Reduction and Safe Use
It’s important to meet people where they are at. This came up during Turning Point’s talk as well, as they would literally meet people where they were at with recovery resources by taking to the street. People with substance use disorder need a supportive community and safe ways to use while they are using so that we can keep people alive until they can be treated. Research has shown that harm reduction shortens the period of active use.
Insufficient housing and transportation are issues that contribute to the opioid crisis. Project CARE received a grant from United Way to provide people with transportation to recovery programs, but this is only one part of what needs to be a much larger solution to these issues.
Project CARE is a good example of how collaboration is effective in responding to the opioid crisis. As a community, it is important that we seek more ways to collaborate on this issue.
As mentioned, isolation is a huge component to why people use substances. People, not only in Brattleboro, but all over the world, are lacking purpose and community. More community events, and circles of support were ways that were suggested to address this theme.
It’s important to remember that recovery is a long process. It could take 8 years to fully recover from substance use disorder. Recovery is not easy or a simple path, and it is important that our economy and community are both recovery ready.
COSU’s speakers emphasized the fact that prevention is a goal for the entire community.
How the Opioid Crisis Relates to our work at BCJC
A lot of our core members and guests that we work with here at BCJC have been affected some way by the opioid crisis. When speaking with people with substance use disorder or people affected by someone with substance use disorder, I think education on the sources of the disorder as well as the impacts of the disorder is important to keep in mind. Restorative Justice is about repairing relationships in the community after they have been violated, and many relationships have been violated by the opioid crisis. In order to restore in the wake of this crisis, community members must examine their responsibility to assist in the healing process and recognize that no problem is borne from one source alone. This crisis has been the result of a multitude of issues and therefore no individual holds the blame. At the same time, those that are perpetrating crimes because of a substance use disorder must be held accountable to their actions as well as be provided help as they have been the receiver of societal, communal, or personal wrongdoings themselves.
If you’d like more information, below I have included a PDF with my full notes from the talks, as well as a PDF with all of the resources I gathered at the talks.
RJ practitioner and former BCJC intern Ethan Hazzard-Watkins, MSW, explores racial disparities at various decision-points in the criminal justice system, whether Vermont RJ programs are currently reducing racial disparities in the adult criminal legal system, and, if not, what could be done to allow RJ programs to have this effect.
Read Ethan's paper below for an exploration of these issues, plus recommendations for aligning our local restorative justice practice with racial justice goals.
You can also download the paper:
Maybe you've experienced the power of a restorative process yourself but aren't sure whether it "works" on a larger scale. Maybe you're skeptical about whether restorative justice "works." Or maybe you want some data to back up your pitch to a skeptic.
Our BCJC intern and Masters in Social Work student at the University of Vermont, Ethan Hazzard-Watkins, explores some of the literature below on the effectiveness of certain RJ processes.
You can also download this paper here:
By Christine Colascione
Anne Louise Wagner has been a reparative panel volunteer with BCJC for several months, after first volunteering with the Youth Services Court Diversion Panels for many years. Anne Louise completed independent work with restorative justice and conflict resolution while studying at SIT and continues to work with experiential learning and conflict resolution through her role at High 5 Adventure’s Edge of Leadership Program.
Megan Grove began volunteering with the Brattleboro Community Justice Center through her degree program at SIT in Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation, during which she completed an eight month internship at BCJC. She then continued to intern as a reparative panel assistant and has assisted BCJC in mediation, training and restorative counseling as a freelance consultant.
Both Megan and Anne Louise also work with Lost River Racial Justice, a currently majority-white Brattleboro-based racial justice organization which works uniquely within our rural and small town contexts to transfer power and resources to black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. Many forms of restorative justice have been practiced by native communities long before beginning to be implemented by the U.S. It is imperative to stay educated on the racist history and present of our current criminal justice system, and make sure that as restorative justice expands and begins to overlap with the current system, that an absolute rejection of white supremacy both internally and externally are actively employed throughout the restorative justice process.
I have asked Anne Louise and Megan a series of questions about the connections between racial and restorative justice:
What intersections do you see between racial justice and restorative justice?
Anne Louise: “The School to Prison Pipeline is an obvious one. Also, restorative practices work against some pieces of white supremacist culture, such as fear of open conflict, either-or thinking (victim vs. perpetrator), and power hoarding. We have to be careful, however, because white supremacist cultural components (for example, paternalism) can show up on reparative panels!”
Megan: “I think both restorative justice and racial justice are rooted in equity so when the word “justice” is used it is not a one-size-fits-all approach but it recognizes each individual’s experiences, needs, and desires. In my view, both restorative and racial justice view justice as something we achieve together in the mantra of “we are not free until all of us are free.””
Have you seen racial justice in action at BCJC?
Anne: “Not at BCJC, however I have an example from another local panel. A black community activist & organizer from Brattleboro came in and got a chance to share their story of why they were arrested during a protest, the differential treatment they received compared to white protesters, and impact the event had on their children who were present, and the long-term complication and challenges. Everyone on the panel agreed racial-bias was at play based on law-enforcement’s behavior. Their process was fast-tracked and the fee was waived; panelists wanted to limit emotional energy required by activist of color.”
Megan: “I think both restorative justice and racial justice are rooted in equity so when the word “justice” is used it is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but recognizes each individual’s experiences, needs, and desires. In my view, both restorative and racial justice see justice as something we achieve together in the mantra of “we are not free until all of us are free.”
What do you see as the biggest obstacle towards increasing restorative justice across the country?
Anne Louise: “The general public needs to trust that it works. Punitive punishment (revenge) mentality makes things seem fair based on people’s current mindset around “justice” [but it isn’t].” Additionally, people need to develop their conversation skills – ability to disagree, ask hard questions, address conflict, be honest and vulnerable, hear other perspectives, developing awareness, etc. Lastly, affected folks [other than the client] need to be more present in process! This is so important but rarely occurs. Everyone needs to be invested/involved!”
Megan: ‘I think there are still a lot of folks who see restorative justice as “letting people off easy”, so perception (or, really, misperception) is huge. I have heard multiple people who, after going through a RJ process, say they thought this would be easier than the alternatives but it was actually more challenging because it made them face themselves, their actions, and their communities. And RJ is more holistic because it not only looks at one incident but at what factors led to it, what can be done to try to make amends, and what plans need to be put in place so a similar incident does not happen in the future. RJ is proactive and preventative. People need to see RJ in action for themselves and they have to want it and push for it. RJ will not work as well if it is implemented from the top down; it must come from the community level up. And since RJ requires different stakeholders from many different sections of society, it can be challenging to get that “buy-in”.
How can restorative justice help dismantle institutional racism in our criminal justice system?
Megan: “This is a huge question and I don’t think restorative justice alone can do it; yet I will try to answer what I think RJ can provide. The principles of restorative justice and restorative practices show us that individuals do not make choices in a vacuum; we are all products of our environments and we have all been affected by systems outside our control. By acknowledging that many truths exist at once, RJ recognizes that people are affected by their environment and factors beyond their control and they can take responsibility for their part in their choices and behaviors at the same time. Where criminal justice sees people as individuals who broke laws against the state, RJ sees people as members of communities who are accountable to and responsible for one another. RJ can help dismantle institutional racism by treating people as human beings who are not disposable and whose lives have been shaped by systems, culture, and history. In the case of U.S. society, this means that African Americans, Latinx folks, Asian Americans, Native Americans, trans folks, folks with mental health issues, folks with disabilities, (and the list can go on and on) face more challenges that white, straight, cisgender, American men. We cannot treat all people equally because that would mean we all have had equal opportunities and starting points. We must treat people with equity, taking into account the ways certain groups in society have been disadvantaged and oppressed for centuries. And, honestly, I don’t think our criminal justice system can do that. I think change will take uprooting the entire system as it exists now and coming up with an entirely new one. The best way to fix a corrupt system is to rid ourselves of the corrupt system and start anew.”
Anne Louise: [Restorative Justice] is a piece of the puzzle, and lessens senseless records that impacts someone’s life trajectory. (I.e. School to Prison Pipeline). White folks are confronted with privileges when you hear people’s stories who are targeted because of the color of their skin. Community-Wide, [restorative justice] leads to community connection, sharing, understanding, and talking about the hard things.”
Lastly, what sustains you in doing this work? What are you hopeful about?
Anne Louise: Connections with others, relating to each other’s challenges and struggles. I see myself in all of the clients and learn with them. Allowing someone to be their whole self – not just “accused.” Clients share about this interest in woodworking, free-style skiing, mentoring young kids, dreams of being a doctor, etc. Opportunity to look forward with them to the future with excitement, not just on the past with shame.
Megan: I am hopeful because of the seemingly small things: the question that elicits a new thought for someone, the change that happens when someone truly hears another person’s side of the story for the first time, the moment when someone catches themselves in a negative/punitive pattern and alters course. I am encouraged by the many people in their daily lives who recognize that conflict is inevitable and natural and that they can approach it as an opportunity. I am sustained by fellow practitioners in the work who encourage and uplift me and with whom I can share my fears, hopes, and mistakes.
Interested in getting involved with Lost River Racial Justice?
Please contact: email@example.com or join their facebook group
Interested in getting involved with Brattleboro Community Justice Center? Please contact Mel at firstname.lastname@example.org