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When did we stop believing in restorative justice?

A significant ideological divide between progressives and conservatives has been the issue of justice. Conservatives often emphasize the need to punish wrongdoers, support mandatory minimums and think that despite some flaws, our criminal justice system works quite well. Progressives have generally favored restorative justice, which emphasizes the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims. 

With each view comes a different understanding of how the criminal justice system works. While it is traditionally understood that its point is to punish wrongdoers, many on the political left argue that its purpose is to separate harmful individuals from others, and then work to rehabilitate them and reintroduce them into society. A new push to give ex-felons voting rights or make it easier for them to enter the workforce is part of this new understanding.

One of the fundamental beliefs underpinning support for restorative justice is that people are more or less products of their environment. People’s material conditions, family upbringing or any other number of environmental factors have a heavier influence on what decisions they make in the future than some idealized notion of free will. No decision an individual makes happens in a vacuum. In other words, everything is cause and effect, and free will is much less of a real thing than we like to think that it is.

All of this is not to say that people should not be held accountable for their decisions. Many problems in the world come from the fact that some of the most powerful people commit terrible crimes and are never held accountable, all while those involved in petty crimes are more reliably punished.

The problem is that applying restorative justice consistently is extremely difficult. It feels good to be a progressive and argue that we should not put people in jail for non-violent drug offenses or that we should have safe injection sites. It is harder to be a progressive and argue that someone who grew up in a racist community and has had beliefs we so strongly oppose can, in some significant amount of time, grow and become a different person.

I argue that becoming more progressive does not mean that we should increasingly punish those who oppose our most important values. It means that we should focus more on restoration and less on punishing our opposition. Restorative justice should ideally extend to any crime as long as there is proof that the offender has shown genuine growth. The point of not just the criminal justice system, but justice in general, should never have been to punish those who commit wrongdoings. It should be to protect victims, and then rehabilitate those who cause harm unto society.

Even though a lot of progressives say they support restorative justice, I think many progressives are not consistent in that view. It is much easier to support its use when a person possesses drugs, than when someone commits a violent crime. Justice should be proportional, but our view that genuine growth is possible for anyone should remain consistent.

Our criminal justice system does not do a good job of keeping people out of prison. With one of the highest recidivism rates in the world, the United States has a lot that needs to be improved. Ending mandatory minimums, decriminalizing (and legalizing) drugs, and ending police brutality are all great first steps. People should continue to push for these changes, but there is much more that can be done. I hope we someday have a view of justice where the primary purpose is not to punish, and where people who get out of prison (or whatever alternative we may have) do not return.

Believing fully in restorative justice is difficult because vengeance feels good. We need more ways to be able to prove if someone has genuinely shown growth, but fundamentally, people are not good or bad. People do not make decisions in a vacuum. People are products of the society they inhabit, and if we want to change society, we have to change the way we view justice. Restorative justice should not mean that people can grow despite doing something we already do not take issue with. It should mean that they can grow, period.

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