Restorative justice is a value-based, dialogue-driven approach to conflict resolution that is rooted in a wager about the nature of reality and the human condition, namely that “[e]very human being wants to be connected in a good way” and in a “safe place” we are able to take action through dialogue to build community so that all life might flourish. This wager embraces the idea that deep within every human heart there is a restorative impulse to seek social healing that is taking form in the world through the practices of restorative justice. Grounded in this wager, restorative justice offers a refreshingly different framework for thinking about crime, wrongdoing, and conflict. It moves beyond the confines of traditional justice systems to embrace social justice principles. Restorative justice acknowledges the damaged relationships, as well as the injuries sustained by victims, that result from any wrongdoing and focuses on healing for all those involved, including communities and offenders. Applied within the criminal justice system, restorative justice shares with retributive justice the concern with making right the wrong that has been done, but restorative justice takes a broader and deeper approach because there is much more involved in crime and wrongdoing than law breaking. Therein lies its potential for application beyond the concerns of conventional criminal justice approaches to other forms of wrongdoing and conflict. These applications may include civil disputes and other forms of conflict that might not normally be thought of as having the potential for resolution in the judicial system, such as conflicts between groups of people that involve issues of social justice.
The promise of restorative justice is found in the vision of hope for building community in the midst of conflict that animates its practice. Inspired by this vision, restorative justice is a distinctive form of conflict resolution that has transformative possibilities for moving from the burden of past wrongdoing into the promise of a new future in which new relationships are forged so that all life might flourish. This hope, and the promises and the possibilities it presents, are rooted in the wager of restorative justice.
To speak of the deepest core assumption of the practice of restorative justice dialogue as a “wager” is to speak of it as the starting point for the practice of restorative justice, and to assert its truth as a matter of reason and experience while acknowledging the limits of both reason and experience, as well as embracing an openness to its amendment as future thought and experience might dictate. In a formal sense, a “wager” is something that one makes based on a conviction of the truth of a proposition or likelihood that an event will occur. In the case of the restorative justice wager, I intend it to mean a commitment to a starting proposition about the possibilities of dialogue rooted in a deep assumption about the nature of reality and the possibilities for transformative conflict resolution present in the face of the human condition. In a nutshell, the wager of restorative justice says something about who we are as humans and what we together can accomplish to build community through open dialogue . Thus, while humans are limited in many ways and their judgments and actions are always contingent and based on partial knowledge gained through reason, experience or a combination of those two, the commitment to the proposition that “‘every [human being] wants to be connected in a good way’ and that in a ‘safe’ place we are able to take action through dialogue to build community so that all life might flourish” is a wager about the human possibility to collectively construct and reflect, in a good way, our deep interconnectedness as a matter of the reality we share.
In this article, I explore the deep assumptions and commitments associated with what I have called the restorative justice wager and the way in which they are embodied in restorative justice dialogue, the heart of restorative justice practice, in order to describe the important contribution that restorative justice has to offer to conventional forms of conflict resolution that have emerged in recent years. For this purpose the article is divided into three parts. Part I explores the definition of restorative justice in a criminal context and beyond in order to set up the discussion of the restorative justice wager and the possibilities for healing presented by restorative justice dialogue that are taken up in Part II. In Part II, extended discussion is devoted to peacemaking circles, one of the four major forms of restorative justice, as the quintessential example of the transformative possibilities that restorative justice offers when careful and continuing attention is placed on the quality of the dialogue conducted in its practice. Here emphasis will be placed on the “inner frame” of restorative justice as understood and practiced within peacemaking circles, as the key to initiating and maintaining careful attention to the quality of the dialogue in order to invite the transforming possibilities of such dialogue to emerge on the road to social healing that takes the restorative justice wager seriously as both the starting point, touchstone and purpose of engaging in restorative practices. In Part III, I offer a suggestion for the next step in constructing a relational theory of restorative justice and conflict resolution with the help of the principle of internal relations. In the Epilogue that follows Part III, I offer a brief personal reflection on the challenges and possibilities that restorative justice sets before us to address the on-going trauma caused by the clash between indigenous peoples and the immigrants who have settled upon their lands in the United States.