Restoring Community

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Restorative practices has its roots in restorative justice, a way of looking at criminal justice that emphasizes repairing the harm done to people and relationships rather than only punishing offenders (Zehr, 1990).

In the modern context, restorative justice originated in the 1970s as mediation or reconciliation between victims and offenders. In 1974 Mark Yantzi, a probation officer, arranged for two teenagers to meet directly with their victims following a vandalism spree and agree to restitution. The positive response by the victims led to the first victim-offender reconciliation program, in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, with the support of the Mennonite Central Committee and collaboration with the local probation department (McCold, 1999; Peachey, 1989). The concept subsequently acquired various names, such as victim-offender mediation and victim-offender dialogue, as it spread through North America and to Europe through the 1980s and 1990s (Umbreit & Greenwood, 2000).

Restorative justice echoes ancient and indigenous practices employed in cultures all over the world, from Native American and First Nation Canadian to African, Asian, Celtic, Hebrew, Arab and many others (Eagle, 2001; Goldstein, 2006; Haarala, 2004; Mbambo & Skelton, 2003; Mirsky, 2004; Roujanavong, 2005; Wong, 2005).

Eventually modern restorative justice broadened to include communities of care as well, with victims’ and offenders’ families and friends participating in collaborative processes called conferences and circles. Conferencing addresses power imbalances between the victim and offender by including additional supporters (McCold, 1999).

The family group conference (FGC) started in New Zealand in 1989 as a response to native Maori people’s concerns with the number of their children being removed from their homes by the courts. It was originally envisioned as a family empowerment process, not as restorative justice (Doolan, 2003). In North America it was renamed family group decision making (FGDM) (Burford & Pennell, 2000). In 1991 the FGC was adapted by an Australian police officer, Terry O’Connell, as a community policing strategy to divert young people from court. The IIRP now calls that adaptation, which has spread around the world, a restorative conference. It has been called other names, such as a community accountability conference (Braithwaite, 1994) and victim-offender conference (Amstutz & Zehr, 1998). In 1994, Marg Thorsborne, an Australian educator, was the first to use a restorative conference in a school (O’Connell, 1998).

The International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) grew out of the Community Service Foundation and Buxmont Academy, which since 1977 have provided programs for delinquent and at-risk youth in southeastern Pennsylvania, USA. Initially founded in 1994 under the auspices of Buxmont Academy, the Real Justice program, now an IIRP program, has trained professionals around the world in restorative conferencing. In 1999 the newly created IIRP broadened its training to informal and proactive restorative practices, in addition to formal restorative conferencing (Wachtel, 1999). Since then the IIRP, an accredited graduate school, has developed a comprehensive framework for practice and theory that expands the restorative paradigm far beyond its origins in criminal justice (McCold & Wachtel, 2001, 2003). Use of restorative practices is now spreading worldwide, in education, criminal justice, social work, counseling, youth services, workplace and faith community applications (Wachtel, 2013).