Restorative justice is a process to involve to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.
~ Howard Zehr, 2002
Restorative or reparative justice's focus on the victim’s needs rather than on the perpetrator’s punishment is a radical rethinking of the European punitive justice process. It is a new paradigm for victim/offender transformation and community healing. Restorative Justice has been called a “quiet grassroots revolution”. Since the 1970s it has been gaining strength in the US and the world in response to a growing dissatisfaction with the punitive justice model. Practices such as Sentencing Circles, Victim Offender conferences, Family Group Conferences, Community Reparative Boards and community art programs such as the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program are all being used in the United States. Countries like New Zealand have decriminalized youth offending and now divert 80% of cases out of courts and into Restorative Justice Processes. Today youth incarceration in that country nearly obsolete. In countries like South Africa, Restorative Justice is being used to address the harm done during apartheid in the form of Truth and Reconciliation Courts. International organizations such as the United Nations have woken up to the potential of this paradigm and in 2006 published the Handbook on Restorative Justice Programs advocating for the use of restorative justice as a tool for criminal justice reform around the world.
In my home state of California our punitive justice system is failing along with its associative policies such as the 3 Strikes Law and Zero Tolerance in our schools. Currently California is proceeding to address the massive overcrowding in our state prison system that these policies contribute to with the Criminal Justice Realignment Act. In order to cope with this policy change Judge Stephen V. Manley calls for the use of evidence based alternatives to deal with the massive load now being placed on local jails. As we look for these alternatives we can see that restorative justice programs have been backed by evidence of lower recidivism rates, victim satisfaction, higher rate of plan completions and radically lower costs for implementation. Despite the positive research and statistics restorative programs are struggling to grow due to a lack of public education and funding. With little funding they are unable to get a large enough sample size to be assessed as an evidence based practice. Therefore we find a successful and sustainable alternative to our prison industrial complex that is currently unable to manifest on a larger scale. The reality is that the capacity of these programs must grow in order to support these shifts in policy and begin to heal our communitites in peace.
Architecture, “… is the primary spatial way for people to represent themselves in the world. And it is in this connection that architects have the opportunity to participate in the restructuring of the spatial and physical world toward a goal of great equity and justice.”
~ Lisa Findley 2005
While we as architects cannot entirely solve the social problems that restorative justice addresses, as Lisa Findlay suggests we can begin to deploy our influence and imaginations to conceive of new forms and devices to support its potential. As designers we can seek to address the education, funding and capacity issues of restorative justice programs by exploring a public interest design approach. This means reaching out to practitioners and creating new visions for a quiet, largely invisible but emerging movement that will elevate its visual presence in the world. The physical realms we imagine can help with fundraising and inspire others to become involved and engage with this revitalized paradigm. As we apply design to solve problems there is an opportunity to discover how it can positively affect the outcomes and success of restorative justice programs. Through the thoughtful design of current and future restorative justice spaces, we can increase the capacity of this paradigm to heal our communities as they will be occupying spaces that nourish them rather than become symbols of the law.
In honor of African American history month I will be sharing some of the research and design application I have done thus far. I also hope to share some new innovations that are going on where there could be opportunities for design professionals. I hope that this discussion inspires you to learn more about restorative justice as an alternative to incarceration and share your own investigations as to how we as architects, designers and planners can conceive of sustainable alternatives to dealing with har
Deanna VanBuren is the principal and founder of FOURM design studio in Oakland California.
Her practice specializes in designing for alternatives to incarceration. She is currently on the national board of Architects Designers Planners for Social Responsibility.