Defining Transformative Justice

(the following is taken from Anthony Nocella’s article)

More and more youth are being incarcerated a year and once they are involved in the juvenile justice system it is hard for them to escape. Save the Kids critically examines issues of race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, nationality, and sexuality in relation to who is being arrested, sentenced, and incarcerated. Save the Kids is not looking to reform the system, but rather transform it and society and aid in detention abolition. Transformative justice goes beyond the classic victim and offender relationship, which restorative justice examines, by analyzing systems of domination that foster oppression such as racism and classism. Transformative justice similar to restorative justice is rooted in community involvement and accountability and the end of punitive and retributive practices that include, prisons, death penalty, and torture. Transformative justice advocates for community and government programs and services that are based on inclusive education, healing, accountability, and forgiveness. Some of the programs that help allows this to be possible include volunteering, service learning, and after school programs. Further, STK pushes for the end of racism, homophobia, ableism, sexism, and classism, which much of juvenile justice system is presently rooted in and for peace, global inclusion, and social justice.

The current punitive criminal justice system takes control, responsibility, healing, and accountability away from victims and offenders and instead gives them a powerless and victimizing experience. Transformative justice, however, views conflict not from the lens of the criminal justice system, but from the community; as such, those involved in the conflict are seen as individuals rather than victims or offenders. Moreover, transformative justice addresses oppression by systems of domination, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, elitism, classism, and ableism within all domestic, interpersonal, global, and community conflicts. In short, transformative justice is restorative justice plus social justice. Transformative justice expands the social justice model, which challenges and identifies injustices, in order to create organized processes of addressing and ending those injustices. Transformative justice and social justice work together in addressing this need. Transformative justice also builds off the principles of restorative justice in order to address experiences of oppression within mediation.

Transformative justice argues that we are all involved in complex relationships of oppressors and oppressed, domination and dominated.  I may be the oppressed in one situation, but I may be the oppressor in another situation.  I may be the victim from one perspective, but I may be the offender from another perspective. Transformative justice is not about destroying and building anew, and it’s not about creating win-lose solutions common to social revolutions in which the oppressed become the new oppressors (Skocpol, 1995).  Instead, transformative justice asks that everyone and everything change—we as individuals, as well as our systems, structures, and relationships.

Transformative justice addresses not only the specific conflict between victim and offenders, but also the plethora of social issues that come to bare on that conflict.  For instance, a 14 year old boy, who is from a poor neighborhood and identifies as queer, robs a store at 2:00 a.m.  Transformative justice not only looks at the crime of burglary, but also why the boy committed the act.  Was the boy kicked out of his home from a parent who was homophobic? Was the boy needing money for food, clothes, or a place to stay?  Was he trying to get money to help his younger sister who is also homeless?  These questions are addressed in order to understand the whole context, which, unfortunately, involves a great deal of injustice.  Our society oppresses and marginalizes those who are poor and queer.  Consequently, there are two victims within this scenario—the store owner who was robbed, and the 14 year old boy is a victim of wider systemic injustice.  This is a clear example of how the systems approach of transformative justice breaks down common barriers between victim and offender, creates a much wider understanding of abuse and violence, and tries to bring everyone together in a transformative relationship.

Social justice activists often identify the oppressor as the enemy.  While this is understandable, transformative justice actually challenges this perspective: no one is an enemy; instead, everyone needs to be involved in a voluntary, safe, constructive, and critical dialogue about accountability, responsibility, and the initiative to heal.  This means that both activists and oppressors, as well as law enforcement, lawyers, judges, prisoners, community members, teachers, students, politicians, spiritual leaders, and others, must come together.  It is for this reason that we should be willing to work with a diversity of people in our push for a better world. Transformative justice looks for the good in others while also acknowledging the complex systems that we all live within.

Below are ten general principles of transformative justice.  The hope is that these help crystalize all that has been said thus far.

  1. Transformative Justice stresses that notion that the current criminal justice system in the U.S. separates the victim and the offender, which re-victimizes the victim and changes the offender into a victim of the state.
  2. Transformative Justice is based on prison abolition.
  3. Transformative Justice brings issues of identity back into the realm of justice by addressing socio-political injustices toward women, people of color, gays, lesbians, trans and queer, poor, immigrants, people with disabilities, and other oppressed and marginalized groups.
  4. Transformative Justice believes that “crime” is framed by the state and not by the community.
  5. Transformative Justice believes in de-institutionalization (empowering people, rather than institutions, to make decisions).
  6. Transformative Justice is against violence and punishment.
  7. Transformative Justice believes in the value of mediation, negotiation, and community to transform conflicts.
  8. Transformative Justice values conflict as an opportunity for growth, progress, and social justice.
  9. Transformative Justice identifies crime as conflict.  Consequently, social structures and the government are identified as potential offenders.
  10. Transformative Justice is for total liberation and the end of all systems of domination.

These ten principles are only a beginning.  They must be challenged, extended, critiqued, and redeveloped by fellow peace workers, penal abolitionists, social justice activists, and those from oppressed communities, especially those incarcerated.  Transformative justice is therefore open to revision and is adaptable to social changes.  The point is to open ourselves up to perpetual progress and justice.  (Nocella, 2013)