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RUBIN-STANKIEWICZ: We need to embrace restorative justice over retaliation, punishment

Column: Rutgers Realities

There are other forms of enforcing consequences besides traditional methods like detention or prison that are largely unproductive.  – Photo by Jeswin Thomas / Unsplash

American culture is obsessed with punishment and retaliation.

We see this in our prison system and in the inflexibility of school discipline, which often focuses on suspending and removing students from the classroom who harm rather than explaining to them why what they did was harmful.

This is partially because our culture often equates justice with retribution: The idea that if you harm someone, justice is harming you in return. For instance, when we talk about "bringing someone to justice" or "seeking justice for the victims," we are usually referring to incarceration.

Restorative justice is an alternative approach to justice and discipline that seeks to repair harm and create stronger, more welcoming communities. Restorative justice argues that if you harm someone, you should have to make up for the harm you have done by seeking to repair the relationships and community you may have damaged.

In doing so, restorative justice transforms the party who did harm into an agent of restoration and gives them a path to rejoin their community. There are many examples of what restorative justice can look like.

Ideally, restorative processes should try to identify the skills and assets of someone who has caused harm in determining how they might be able to repair that harm. For instance, if someone destroys school property but has a gift for painting, they may be asked to repair other school property or to create a mural on campus.

Another part of restorative justice is restorative conferencing, which is a mediated conversation between a person harmed by an incident, the person responsible for the harm and other members of the community impacted by the incident. The facilitator will pre-conference or meet with all parties involved ahead of time to ensure that they can protect everyone during the conference as well as possible.

This period of pre-conferencing is also when a facilitator can help someone understand why what they did was so harmful so that a victim is not forced to intellectualize and explain their pain to the person who harmed them. In the end, all parties involved come to a written agreement.

Not every restorative justice process will involve restorative conferencing. For instance, if people involved in an incident do not feel comfortable with a restorative conference, they could instead engage in an impact panel, where victims and perpetrators from similar but unrelated incidents are brought together to discuss their experiences.

One of the core tenets of restorative justice is that it must be victim-centered, with the person harmed by a situation having the autonomy to decide what happens in the restorative process. The criminal justice system rarely involves asking harmed parties what they want and need when they are recovering from trauma.

Victims should be able to decide how involved and comfortable they feel during any restorative process and what level of contact, if any, they want with the person who harmed them. Just because a certain restorative justice strategy was healing for one person, that same strategy could be ineffective or even harmful to another.

Trying to force healing onto someone who has been harmed makes that person feel wrong, angry and even guilty or broken if they are unable to heal in the way they are "supposed to be."

Restorative justice also understands that the distinction between the categories of "victim" and "perpetrator" is often blurred and even non-existent. In Professor Nancy Wolff's book "The Shadow of Childhood Harm Behind Prison Walls: Theory, Evidence and Treatment," she discusses how she often does a word association game with groups of parole and probation officers, students and others, asking what words people associate with "criminal."

The common responses she gets are fear-based and stigmatizing, and she rarely hears the word "victim" raised, except in relation to the people harmed by a criminal. Despite this perception, more than "half of male inmates (56 percent) reported experiencing childhood physical trauma," and there are higher rates for incarcerated women.

Our disconnection from the reality that perpetrators are often victims and vice versa is because our society dehumanizes people who are incarcerated in order to rationalize treating them as disposable and violating their civil rights.

This phenomenon can also be seen in how we see undocumented immigrants: we treat their "offense" of crossing the border without documentation as justification for deporting them and putting them in detention centers in often deplorable conditions.

Another reason there is such opposition to changing our criminal-legal system is the belief that incarceration effectively deters people from criminal behavior or acting harmfully. But UNSW Law Emeritus Professor David Brown suggests that harsher penalties do not result in lower rates of recidivism or criminal charges, either in the sense of dissuading that person from repeating the same offense or in preventing others in the population from following in their example.

Recidivism rates in U.S. prisons are very high, with approximately 44 percent of incarcerated people released from prison returning to prison within a year of their release date.

In fact, many states strip incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people of their voting rights. Formerly incarcerated people face higher rates of employment and housing discrimination. They may also lose access to state and federal benefits, like public housing, food stamps and educational assistance. Our culture of retribution has increased recidivism by creating a cycle of incarceration that people cannot escape.

If our systems want to truly deter people from acting harmfully and breaking the law, they need to invest in prevention, not just reactively punishing people after they do so. Prevention involves making sure that people have their basic needs met. Prevention also involves investing in community violence intervention programs to break cycles of violence and retaliation and having trauma recovery centers, free trauma-informed mental and physical health supports, and monetary assistance available for those who have been victimized.

Rutgers has substantially invested in restorative justice recently and hired a Restorative Justice Coordinator. A Restorative Leaders student organization started this year as well to advocate for a restorative approach within systems at Rutgers.

But there is still more work to be done. College campuses are often sites of conflict, bias and discrimination. When such incidents happen on campus, universities need to take a preventative, rather than a reactive, approach to stop them from happening again.

Part of prevention involves changing the way that universities communicate with the community following problematic incidents, as well as universities involving students, faculty and staff in substantial ways with change-making processes in order to rebuild trust.

This can be difficult because universities often must respond to situations from a confidentiality and legal liability standpoint. But when there is a perception that those in power do not care enough to take action after an incident, members of a university community will continue to feel uncared for and unimportant in the eyes of the university.

Raisa Rubin-Stankiewicz is a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences majoring in political science and minoring in psychology. Her column, "Rutgers Realities," runs on alternate Thursdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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