Restorative Justice: A Path of Decolonization

Aaron Lyons, May 30, 2008

Criminal justice in the “New World” follows much of the same logic as the original colonization of its indigenous peoples. This logic can be described crudely but not inaccurately as one of assimilation and domination. A walk through today’s prison systems can demonstrate how those outside of the dominant culture, class, or ethnicity find themselves at the affect of social and judicial systems designed according to the hierarchical sensibilities of colonial Europe.

Consider that in the United States, a nation struggling with the legacy of slavery and segregation, one in four African American men will find themselves behind bars during their lifetime. Consider that in Canada, where aboriginal peoples make up four percent of the nation’s population, they make up nearly 19 percent of the prison population (Statistics Canada 2006, Roberts and Melchers, 2003, pg. 1). Or look across the globe to Australia, where on any given day, six percent of all Aborigines are behind bars (Krieg, 2006, pg. 1). In fact, most post-colonial nations mirror these troubling trends.

Behind these figures lies a complex set of human dynamics. Partly at play are elements of institutionalized racism of the kind that the Maori of New Zealand spoke out against during the 1980s. In those years, the frustration of generations of indigenous citizens about the “monocultural bias…that has driven the Maori into the role of outsiders and strangers in their own land” (Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective on the Department of Social Welfare, 1988, pg. 78) erupted in a peaceful push for monumental changes in that nation’s youth justice and child welfare practice. Surely the legacies of historical trauma and social dislocation in which many marginalized groups are embroiled—in the United States and across the post-colonial world—are also factors in explaining trends of incarceration. Whatever the causes, the demographic parity between the dynamics of incarceration and those of colonization are striking.

On closer observation, a colonial impulse toward conformity and hierarchy is apparent not only within our justice systems, but within the very fabric of society. Post-colonial education, governance, and economic systems all display such a bias. Our institutions are largely permeated by a particular and consistent way of seeing the world: a “lens,” to borrow the language of restorative justice scholar Howard Zehr (Zehr, 1990).

Generally, we are about as aware of our lenses as is a fish of the water surrounding it. Yet it is within our core assumptions about our world and our relationships that we locate not only patterns of social injustice, but also the keys to transformation of these injustices. Within this ocean of unspoken assumptions, practices of criminal justice provide a vivid snapshot of dominant social values, particularly of our conceptions of the “other.” As such, justice is a useful entrance point into the question of social transformation.

It is in the context of social transformation that we can best understand the concept of “restorative justice.” The term implies a shift away from top-down, dominative methods of judicial decision-making and toward community and stakeholder empowerment in justice. But restorative justice practices represent the mere tip of an iceberg of institutions, cultural norms, and values. Restorative justice aspires to spark not only a re-evaluation of the way we do justice, but of the ways we understand and relate to our entire social environment. The direction of this shift may be roughly summarized, as Zehr has done, in one word: respect (Zehr, 2002, pg. 36).

To understand the invitation that restorative justice extends to our society, we must know something of its history. It must first be said that the principles underlying restorative justice are not new. Timeless is the idea of direct, human involvement in efforts to put things right following harmful events, an idea that transcends culture and geography.  The notion of justice as healing, as movement toward the wholeness of victims, perpetrators and the communities of which they are a part—this, too, is an ancient concept that remains alive and well within many traditional cultures. Yet these images of justice have, in a Western context, often been buried under the prerogatives of state judicial processes.

Restorative justice has often taken hold in the West through dialogue between state and indigenous conceptions of justice. In North America, for example, Peacemaking Circles entered the wider stage largely by way of creative dialogue between then Yukon Circuit Court Judge Barry Stuart and the First Nation communities in which he worked. This simple and ancient methodology is currently being applied in schools, criminal justice settings, religious institutions, businesses, inner cities and other settings across North America.

In New Zealand too, European/indigenous dialogue is implicit in what we call restorative justice. The first country to institutionalize a form of restorative justice on a national scale, New Zealand’s 1989 youth justice reforms emerged out of government consultation with nearly 3000 indigenous Maori citizens across the nation. At the heart of the reforms was a call for increased cultural sensitivity in the state’s dealings with young people. Individual young offenders were to be understood and worked with in the context of the larger family and tribal systems in which they were embedded. Thus indigenous citizen engagement led to the development of a model of family group conferencing now employed with New Zealand young offenders of all cultural origins.

Dialogue is at the root of restorative justice. Yet creative dialogue between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples is often painfully framed by the historical trauma and continued legacy of colonization. This history, while varied according to context and far beyond the scope of this piece, is broadly one of bloodshed, land appropriation, family and community demolition, the theft and Christianization of children, willful destruction of language and culture, and other explicit policies of assimilation. Signs of lasting trauma can be observed in aboriginal communities throughout the former colonies as these communities struggle to regain meaning, purpose and identity. The residue of dehumanized colonial relationships remains internalized within the psycho-social patterning of aboriginals and non-aboriginals alike.

Restorative justice thus finds itself born into an asymmetrical and often fragile context. The line between respectful learning from aboriginal traditions, and cultural appropriation—stealing—can be almost imperceptibly fine. Critics of the above-referenced developments in Canada and New Zealand point out that these practices have disembodied elements of indigenous culture from the traditional contexts in which their meanings were embedded. From this view, restorative justice may risk breaching its own cores values of respect and humility.

Yet the painful relational context of restorative justice is not cause to send victim and perpetrator into isolation in their respective cultural corners. Rather, this context calls upon us to apply the fundamental questions of restorative justice within the structural relationships that envelop its practice.

One challenge then is for non-aboriginal practitioners of restorative justice to be attentive to aboriginal voices and concerns about methods of practice; but the listening should not end there. Instead, restorative justice invites a much broader conversation about the collective relationships governing post-colonial society. To borrow further from Zehr: who has been harmed? What are their needs? What obligations are created by these needs? Who should be involved in an effort to meet these needs? (Zehr, 2002). As Harley Eagle, a Native American practitioner of restorative justice, once told me, “if folks understood that restorative justice is a way of life, then they would realize that it must help move both aboriginal peoples and whites out of the colonizing system we still live with.”

Somewhere along the path of dialogue, we begin to understand colonialism not only for its outward and historical expressions, but as a very inward, personal phenomenon. Eagle continues, “decolonizing is about recognizing that our worldview is corrupt—that it’s based on a force that is not about the goodness and the wellbeing of all.”

As Eagle’s words suggest, authentic social change lives first within our worldview. Achieving best practices in restorative justice; addressing trauma and wrongdoing in troubled collective relationships; structural changes in criminal justice, education and governance—such processes begin with overthrowing the self-interested desire to control. Decolonization is about respecting first one’s own innate voice, then expanding that respect outward in a way that seeks to honor and uplift the voices of others, rather than attempting to subdue them into conformity. For me, that is the central invitation of restorative justice.

Works Cited

Krieg, A. S. (2006). Aboriginal Incarceration: Health and Social Impacts. The Medical Journal of Australia, 184(10) (Electronic Version). Retrieved May 5, 2008, from

Ministerial Advisory Committee on a Maori Perspective for the Department of Social Welfare. (1988).  Puao-Te-Ata-Tu (Daybreak). Wellington, New Zealand.

Roberts, J.V., Melchers, R. (2003). The Incarceration of Aboriginal Offenders: Trends from 1978 to 2001. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 45(2) (Electronic Version). Retrieved May 12, 2008 from

Statistics Canada.  (2006). Aboriginal Peoples in Canada in 2006: Inuit, Metis and First Nations, 2006 Census. Retrieved May 16, 2008, from

Zehr, H. (1990). Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice. Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press.

Zehr, H. (2002). The Little Book of Restorative Justice. Intercourse, PA: Good Books


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s