The Little Book of Restorative Justice [#RFBookClub BOOK REVIEW]

Book Review by Bethany Ann Pretty

Blog Editor: Mark Barry

The Little Book of Restorative Justice was written by Howard Zehr in 2002 by Good Books publishing in Pennsylvania, in the United States of America and is seventy-one pages in length, including appendices and endnotes.

Known as the “Grandfather of Restorative Justice” (Zehr, 2002), Howard Zehr, a middle-class Mennonite Christian from European descent, is credited as the first in the field to develop the beginning of modern-day Restorative Justice (RJ) as a philosophy and practice in Canada and the United States in the 1970s and 80s.

Zehr’s audience for this publication is anyone interested in the field of RJ, treating this book as a quick and compact refresher course of RJ philosophy and practices. This book addresses Zehr’s fear that those implementing RJ at the time of this book’s publication in 2002, are going off the track and need “straight forward terms” moving forward so that they do not cause more harm for victims, offenders and the community.

Zehr is heavily influenced by previous RJ philosophy and practices of the North American Indigenous community and New Zealand’s implementation of RJ, which has been woven into their criminal justice system. Zehr argues that the justice system is frustratingly inadequate in that the needs of the victim, offender and community are not being met. He believes that justice professionals also feel the strain of a failing system, designed with offender self-serving motivations as a focus, that creates additional harm in the criminal justice process, instead of healing.

As the field of RJ grows, Zehr wishes to set the record straight on what restorative justice is, and is not, saying that we need to return to the core principals he previously outlined for RJ. Specifically, Zehr says that RJ is “an invitation for dialogue and exploration” (Zehr, 2002) where the “wrongdoer must admit to some level of responsibility” as being the basic principal. He explains that victims are often ignored in the way that they do not receive the information they need or get a chance to “tell their story”. What is more, Zehr says that victims lose control of their empowerment when harm is committed against them and that vindication is a basic human need in order to have the satisfaction of restitution.

In term of the offenders, Zerh says that a criminal justice sentence is not accountable punishment, but that they need to address the harm they have caused and gain empathy for the victims in order to truly transform enough to successfully be integrated back into the community. Finally, Zehr regards the community as “2nd victims” (Zehr, 2002), but that they also need to take responsibility for creating healthy communities that provide opportunities that address the causes of crime, via trauma exploration of its members. After outlining the roles and goals for the victims, offenders and community Zerh explains with some detail three RJ practices (namely victim offender conferences, family group conferences and circles) and describes their appropriate purposes and applications. Zehr says that RJ is not forgiveness for offenders, it is not mediation, it is not meant to reduce recidivism, and that it is not a quick one-stop program that will fix all the world’s problems.

I think anyone reading this book will get a clear understanding that this is Zehr’s subjective view of how he feels RJ should be implemented, and it does clarify the roles of the victim, offender and community as he envisioned. Considering that this book was written in 2002, the philosophy explanation of RJ is still relevant and helpful. The writing style was clear and effective. This book is mostly about how RJ should be incorporated into the criminal justice process with only small references to RJ in education, which I think would be a more relevant area to explore in greater detail in 2019. Lastly, Zehr refers to offenders being sentenced to participation of RJ practice such as circles and conferences, and I think this goes against a primary principle of RJ in that the offender must choose this path, not be forced. If forced to participate, the offender is not able to meet their needs and may produce a sense of false empathy for the victim. So, I think RJ has positively evolved since Zehr’s 2002 publication, but it was a helpful and insightful read.

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