Restorative Justice: Frequently Asked Questions

Marquette University Law School, under the leadership of the Hon. Janine P. Geske (retired justice of the Wisco nsin Supreme Court and retired Distinguished Professor of Law), has been at the forefront of the national and international restorative justice movement. In December 2021, Louis (L’66) and Suzanne Bouquet Andrew’s (Sp’66) generous gift helped establish the school’s Andrew Center for Restorative Justice. The center supports teaching, practicing, and promoting restorative justice processes. It serves as a central hub for educating students on restorative justice and how to use its approaches in their law practices and broader service.

The Andrew Center for Restorative Justice

  • teaches law students, both academically and experientially, to
    • understand the philosophy, process, and practice of restorative justice
    • appreciate the needs of those harmed as well as those who harm
    • seek creative and collaborative solutions to help redress harm
    • cultivate invaluable lawyering skills such as deep listening, empathy, and teamwork
    • engage in respectful dialogue
    • be trauma-smart and excellent problem-solvers
    • be creative peacemaking leaders in their communities after graduation
    • embrace their roles in engaging with communities to help right relationships and support social cohesion
    • serve as resources for victims, communities, and organizations seeking restorative justice services
  • leads with empathy, compassion, respect, and trauma-informed care
  • works side-by-side with other academic disciplines on the Marquette University campus to maximize the expertise in the various fields to best serve the campus and restorative justice movement
  • facilitates community-building circles throughout greater Milwaukee
  • is working with judges, prosecutors, and others at Children’s Court in Milwaukee County to create restorative justice practices in an effort to reduce reoffending
  • is forming healing circles at the Racine Correctional Institution
  • invites certain formerly incarcerated individuals to participate in healing circles
  • teaches community groups about the power of restorative justice
  • is collaborating with the Milwaukee Police Department on restorative justice training
  • is creating a program with the Medical College of Wisconsin Comprehensive Injury Center to support victims of crime and provide avenues for healing
  • promotes scholarship, research, dialogue, and service related to restorative justice
  • conducts restorative justice conferences and other public events at Marquette University Law School
    • The Andrew Center for Restorative Justice or its predecessor (the Law School’s Restorative Justice Initiative or RJI) has organized 11 conferences to date, each with hundreds of guests often from around the globe, to discuss specific conflicts ranging from human trafficking to terrorism. Please click (here) to access links to videos of our restorative justice conferences; click (morning session / afternoon session) to view a segment from our most recent Andrew Center for Restorative Justice conference titled Restorative Justice in Indian Country: Speaking the Truth, Instilling Accountability, and Working Toward Healing (2023)
    • The RJI created the Healing Circle DVD focused on sex abuse in the Catholic Church

Restorative justice started as a movement in the 1970s and has grown worldwide. Restorative justice has its roots in ancient practices of Native American, First Nations, and other indigenous people around the world. It has been defined in a variety of ways by different people. As one leader in the movement has said, “Restorative justice is a compass not a map.” Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice (2002).

The following definition well captures the ingredients of restorative justice:

“[R]estorative justice is a relational way of responding to crime and criminal wrongdoing or similarly harmful episodes, whereby those with a personal stake in the harm come together, in a safe and respectful environment, usually with the help of skilled facilitators, to speak truthfully about what happened and its impact on their lives, to clarify accountability for the damage that has occurred, and to resolve together how best to promote repair and bring about positive changes for all involved.” Christopher D. Marshall, “Justice as Care,” in The International Journal of Restorative Justice (2019).

Restorative justice focuses on repairing harm, accountability, and restoring relationships. It asks these questions:

  1. Who was harmed?
  2. What is needed to heal?
  3. Whose obligation is it to meet those needs?

Restorative justice is an approach to harm or crime that is very different from the traditional legal system. The traditional approach is often punitive. It focuses on what laws were broken, who broke them, and how the justice system should deliver punishment. This system was not set up to help justice-involved persons and victims overcome the many challenges after harm has been committed. In some instances, the traditional approach has caused additional harm and inequity for those involved. On the other hand, restorative justice’s focus on supporting people who have experienced harm, reducing harm, and restoring relationships has been a game changer for many. Restorative justice has become an important public safety strategy, yet it does not seek to supplant the traditional legal system.

Restorative justice practices can be used in noncriminal settings, such as conflicts in housing, schools, communities, and organizations.

Restorative justice uses professionally trained facilitators to support civil dialogue between the person who was harmed, the person responsible for causing the harm, and members of the community closest to the harm.

Restorative justice practice models include healing circles, community conferencing, and face-to-face dialogue or victim-offender dialogue. Each has unique aspects but shares a similar purpose. There are no boxes to check or guideposts for facilitating restorative justice. A restorative process is always tailored to meet the needs of those involved and the community in which it is practiced.

Civil dialogue is necessary to enhance the depth of relational engagement. Persons harmed may agree to meet with those who have caused them harm. Before those responsible for harm can participate, they must take responsibility for their actions and agree to seek to make amends. The focus on interconnectedness of participants opens the possibility that the community may have obligations to help repair harm as well.

All parties participate voluntarily. Highly trained facilitators help connect the responsible party with the harmed party as well as with supportive family and community members. If everyone agrees to participate in the process, the facilitators work separately with all parties to prepare them for a restorative dialogue. Once in dialogue, these basic questions are discussed:

  1. What happened?
  2. What is the nature (and the breadth and depth) of the harm?
  3. What are we going to do to work on repairing the harm?

All stakeholders affected by the wrongdoing have a voice in the process. Meetings occur in safe spaces and include sharing of stories. The persons harmed have an opportunity to share how they were affected—the ripples of harm—and what they need to move toward healing. The person who has harmed assumes responsibility for causing the harm. Everyone works together to determine the appropriate response and, if possible, move toward harm repair. The victim’s perspective is key to determining how to repair the harm. The facilitator helps the parties reach an agreement that addresses everyone’s needs.

A restorative justice approach can proceed in conjunction with, or apart from, the more formal processes associated with the traditional legal system.

Restorative justice emphasizes:

  • adequate preparation of parties
  • attention to relationships and interconnectedness
  • guidance by third-party facilitators
  • invitation for support people/family to be present
  • the power of storytelling and listening
  • the importance of being heard and understood
  • practical agreements created by consensus

Restorative justice seeks to:

  • provide opportunities for civil dialogue
  • repair harm
  • mend and strengthen relationships
  • create pathways to prevent future harm

The goal of “harm repair” is significant. Where the goals of the traditional legal system are to deter, punish, and rehabilitate, restorative justice poses a new goal of repairing the harm of crime. Professionally guided civil dialogue creates a safe setting for the sharing of stories, deep listening, empathy, and the sharing of stories thus making harm repair possible.

Rather than focusing solely on punishment prescribed by law, restorative justice’s focus on accountability requires a wrongdoer to fully acknowledge the harm and make amends by putting things as right as possible. The opportunity to make such amends is rarely available in the traditional court system. It can open a path to true accountability for people who have harmed others.