Umbreit began by pointing out the paradox that restorative justice is a combination of the very old and the very new. While Tony Blair made headlines implementing restorative justice principles into some of the UK's criminal justice system, he said, in many ways the movement is really just the modern world catching on to ideas first used in North American indigenous settings for thousands of years. It's not just a paradigm shift for justice, said Umbreit, but potentially a fundamental change in our way of life.
(A speaker from Australia who I'll discuss more later said the same thing - in Adelaide they hope to begin using RJ techniques early in the schools, as soon as kindergarten, in the hopes that when those kids grow up they'll have a different understanding of crime and punishment and as adults look at the prison system and say, "That's not how we do things.")
Which brings us to Umbreit's next point: Restorative justice is a philosophy, not a program. It's not just victim-offender mediation or sentencing circles, it's a different way of understanding and responding to crime and conflict, about how we treat each other in all aspects of life. What is that philosophy? In a nutshell: "Crime is a wound and justice requires healing." It's the idea that "People most affected by crime [should] have the opportunity to come together to talk about impacts, repairing harms and to further healing."
His definition was essentially similar to Howard Zehr's, who said under a Restorative Justice model, violations create obligations for which offenders should be accountable. Restorative Justice, said Zehr, asks: "Who's been hurt, what are their needs, and whose obligations are they?"
RJ provides a different path, said Umbreit, neither liberal nor conservative. It's "going back to the future, back to core values of all of our cultures."
Restorative justice ideas are slowly seeping into government institutions and popular culture, Umbreit said. In 2002 UN endorsed RJ principles. The same year the European Union required states to provide victim-offender mediation by 2006. Russia, several former Eastern bloc countries, Colombia, El Salvador, and Bolivia all have promising RJ initiatives, he said.
With all these positive developments, though, Umbreit declared that the restorative justice movement is in danger of "losing its soul" and becoming "Restorative Justice Lite." The word victim often isn't even included in planning or documents of some so-called RJ programs, he said, whereas a true restorative justice model is always victim-centered, not focused on the offenders' needs.
Offender rehab is not restorative justice, said Umbreit. Restorative Justice is always victim driven. It's a broad set of principles, but the centrality of victims is at the core.
Umbreit in particular praised the effectiveness of peace making circles, where victims, offenders and other affected parties meet in a mediated setting, but said they're hard to implement in significant volume. He said the process is very helpful to survivors and touches inmates more than most other interventions.
Restorative justice fosters healing and accountability instead of punishment. We are deficit oriented, said Umbreit, focused on identifying and punishing people's shortcomings instead of building on their incredible strength.
Umbreit said at least 88 studies from 7 countries have found restorative justice methods have more success at reducing crime, boosting restitution rates and repairing harm to victims than other criminal justice practices. RJ victim-offender interactions reduces recidivism by more than 25% compared to punishment alone. If our systems of justice focused on recidivism and best outcomes, he believes, most prisons would be shut down and probation would completely redesigned.
Several speakers including Umbreit pointed to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a watershed moment for restorative justice principles, the first time a nation chose truthsaying and storytelling as a way to heal terrible rifts in the populace instead of punishment and retribution. Umbreit said the United Nations is doing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Liberia now that goes further than in South Africa.
For me, Umbreit's presentation caused several of these ideas to "click" for the first time. His clear distinction between restorative justice and rehab programs based on their philosophical approach finally made it clear to me what's really new about restorative justice ideas.
Indeed, when he described the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an example of RJ principles, I thought others nearby might be blinded by the light bulb going off over my head. That was such a truly remarkable historical event, it had never occurred to me that the principles they applied to mass victimization under apartheid might also have applications for everyday crime and punishment. But it could. And if it does, it will be because of the implementation of restorative justice philosophies and practices.