There are many restorative justice systems. The one I’ve been studying is Restorative Circles (RC), a system developed by Dominic Barter in the shanty towns of urban Brazil and now spreading across the world as a means of promoting and facilitating social justice, group cohesion, resilient relationships and personal healing.

Restorative Circles provide a way for individuals and communities to handle conflicts, including racial conflicts, compassionately rather than punitively, as well as to heal and learn from these conflicts.  These days when I say I want justice, this is the kind of justice system I have in mind — a system that values everyone’s needs and is designed to address those needs without either blame or compromise.

To the uninitiated, restorative processes may appear idealistic and naive. After all, they reject the two core aspects of the traditional justice system: the assignment of blame and the administration of punishment. Instead, the goal of the Circle is for the parties involved in the conflict to first gain mutual understanding of the others’ experiences and needs and then to restore or build a mutually satisfying relationship.

Talking is involved, so is listening. Lots of listening. But it’s a decidedly different type of talk than people usually engage in, and it’s not just talk.

The restorative process is designed to lead to voluntary (and they really are voluntary!) acts offered to repair or restore the relationship. The two words are not synonymous.

Reparative acts have to do with compensation — paying for a broken window is a reparative act — while restorative acts are those whose value is largely symbolic, a heart-felt apology may qualify, or a basket of vegetables from one’s garden, or an invitation to dinner. It’s certainly not surprising that people prefer to have both, but it turns out, Barter explains, that if they can only have one, there is a strong preference for acts that are restorative.

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