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Reclaiming juvenile justice for the 21st century

James Moeser

The roots of what has come to be called restorative justice run deep into our history and into the strengths of diverse cultures from around the world. As articulated by Howard Zehr (1990), Daniel Van Ness and Karen Heetderks Strong (1997), Kay Pranis (1998), and others, restorative justice requires that we look at crime as causing harm and injury to the relationships that bind our families, neighborhoods, and communities together. Van Ness and Heetderks Strong specifically suggested that if crime causes injury, justice ought to be about repairing that harm. Therefore, the process of justice must become one in which the following things happen:

Restorative justice seeks to both reclaim and reinvigorate the role of average citizens in achieving a sense of peace in their community and a sense of justice when that peace has been disturbed by the actions of others. This concept has been embodied in many Native American traditions that seek to “mend the broken circle” that is damaged by crime or other behavior that affects all others. This concept is illustrated in the quote from Driving Hawk-Sneve (1987): “The circle is a sacred symbol of life…Individual parts within the circle connect with every other; and what happens to one, or what one part does, affects all within the circle” (p. 130). To a great extent, advocates of restorative justice suggest that our Anglo-Saxon predecessors usurped the necessary skills and responsibilities of citizens in preventing and responding to crime. In the United States in particular – when combined with our increased mobility and fast-paced technological advancement – this has led to an increased dependence on institutions (law enforcement, judicial, and governmental) to preserve order and establish peace. We have created a sort of “justice dependence” in which it is easier and more common to call 911 for help than it is to solve a problem directly.

In confronting this challenge, advocates of restorative justice recognize the legitimate role of many of our current judicial structures that provide due process as well as a “sanctioning” process for offenders. However, by “sanctioning,” advocates of restorative justice suggest that there are other, potentially more powerful strategies than those often offered through the traditional system, such as healing circles, community reparations boards, victim offender dialogue, and community accountability panels seeking to bring offenders and affected community members together to listen to each other, learn from one another, and ultimately re-engage one another in a reparative response. Each of these strategies has evolved from rich cultural traditions or from renewed efforts by advocates of restorative justice (Bazemore & Umbreit, 1998). The true test of these responses lies in their ability not only to resolve conflicts of an individual nature but also to strengthen and build community relationships and skills.


Bazemore, G. & Umbreit, M. (1998). Conferences, circles, boards, and medications: Restorative justice and citizen involvement in the response to youth crime. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Pranis, K. (1998). Promising practices in community justice: Restorative justice. In K. L. Dunlap (Ed), Community justice concepts and strategies. pp 37-57

Van Ness, D., & Heetsderks Strong, K. (1997). Restoring justice. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing.
Zehr, H. (1990). Changing lenses. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.

Moeser, J. P. (1999). Reclaiming Juvenile Justice for the 21st Century. Reclaiming Youth and Children. Vol. 8. No. 3. pp. 163-164

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