On January 15 and 16, along with about 25 other students, professors and administrators, I took part in an introductory course on the general principles and goals of restorative justice and the ways to embed these practices into our college community. I entered the first day of training with few expectations and about a million questions: What even is restorative justice? How does it work? It might first be beneficial to explain the philosophy behind this exercise.
A typical judicial system, whether national or collegiate, tends to focus on harsh punishment for the wrongdoer and legal vengeance in the name of the victim. In so doing, these systems of “justice” are severely limited. The offender does not learn anything from their mistake, and so the victim cannot fully heal from their action. Restorative justice places the involved parties in a face-to-face conversation in which the malfeasant takes direct responsibility for their actions. The goal is to prioritize openness and healthy dialogue between the two sides.
Participants in this course sat in circles and brought talking pieces of personal significance, emphasizing the acceptance of an individual into the group. From there, we were welcome to share anything about our talking pieces, however personal. The only rule during this phase was to listen with an open mind, no matter the subject of conversation. By emphasizing openness and healthy dialogue above all else, restorative justice excels in two ways: it brings people together and it focuses on healing.
Restorative justice can be useful even if a harmful action has not taken place. Throughout the training, I grew very close to a number of people inside my circles, and our conversations grew increasingly more honest and intimate. Just before the move to remote learning, the floor of my residence hall held a similar circle, which I believe brought an already tight-knit community even closer.
While restorative justice is an extremely exciting prospect for how the college mediates conflict in the future, on the second day of our training, I came to a disheartening yet crucial conclusion. Restorative justice, for all of its community-building benefits, cannot exist as a substitute for some kind of institutional system of justice. It isn’t a catch-all solution to every problem the college has or will ever face because certain situations demand stronger institutional action.
Take the recent example of the three white lacrosse players who harassed a younger Black teammate with racial slurs. Putting these people in the same room for a circle or dialogue is a misguided, perhaps even destructive idea. It might cause the Black player to feel unsafe. Additionally, there is no reason to believe that the other three players would own up to their actions in the honest manner that restorative justice requires. Even if such a meeting did occur, the harm inflicted by these men goes beyond the one teammate they harassed. It is a campus-wide injury that appears to repeat itself often at Amherst College like some kind of chronic disease. Such cases, I believe, are outside the scope of what restorative justice can accomplish. As a result, it becomes the duty of the institution to remedy the harm. Calling on the college be accountable, to remedy and prevent further incidents is the central goal of our movement to integrate Amherst.
This isn’t to insinuate that restorative justice cannot be an effective tool to remediate conflict; it clearly can. Our class was taught by three professionals in the field of restorative justice who are hired in order to solve various conflicts when they happen. Perhaps it could be used preemptively with other groups on campus in order to prevent further conflicts from occurring. It should also be incorporated into future orientations for new students, thus ensuring that every person on campus has a background in the practice.
Restorative justice is not the endgame of our movement; it is only one of many steps on our quest to #IntegrateAmherst.