Notes on the Potential of Transformative Justice

Circle Justice Gathering

Circle Justice Gathering

Dear Readers!

A few months ago I came across a 3rd community-minded approach to justice that has elements of two other justice models I believe powerful for the 21st Century.

I’ve posted previously on Circle Justice and on Restorative Justice, (link takes you to a modest resource page for justice practices in my “Essential Practices” section).

With this post, I want to alert readers to an emerging “third form” of healing justice – Transformative Justice. But first, some background on Circle and Restorative Justice:

Both Circle and Restorative Justice models place emphasis on healing individual and community – healing of victim, perpetrator, and rupture in community brought about by harm done. Both stem from an understanding that every person has gift to bring to community. Both acknowledge a victim’s suffering is valid. Both acknowledge that a perpetrator’s action against the victim is rooted in at least misguided world view, and at worst deep wounding from an earlier time in the perpetrator’s experience. A misguided world view, and/or deep wounding from an earlier time, are both ‘normal human psychology’. But acting out due to either of these can cause harm, even very serious harm. Acting out perpetuates harm – it can be like a contagious infection. Infections call for healing.

Whether or not a perpetrator’s ‘misguided world view’ or ‘wounding from previous experience’ is analyzed directly to bring justice when harm has been done, is not the point. The point is that both Circle and Restorative Justice assume that no one is born with intent to weak havoc on others. By acknowledging a deeper ‘back-story’, Circle and Restorative Justice allow us to honor the current victim’s suffering without vindictive attitudes that demand only vengeance. (Vindictive vengeful response when harm is done “feeds” the infection.)

Punishment isn’t intended to humiliate. It’s intended to (1) help the perpetrator recognize how an action has created harm; and (2) cause the perpetrator to in some way put time and effort into ‘making good’ on what was done – in such a way that benefit goes directly to those harmed, and also to the community.  (The community, by intrusion of the harm, has also taken a blow).  One key intention is that the perpetrator will eventually find contributing and benefiting – and welcome place – in community again.

For my inspiration on what is possible in individual and community healing that steps away from vengeance, I often mention South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation efforts. Clearly the process of healing in South Africa is incomplete. During 2011 a mix of complaints and excesses in response to historical abusive treatments re-emerged, and these seem unresolved. But South Africa nevertheless has shown the world, in my opinion, that even the most extreme and widespread suffering of any of us by actions of others can be approached with intent to build a better way for humanity.

Circle Justice, in North America at least, is the oldest form of commuinty-minded justice healing that does not seek vengeance. It was practiced in various forms by North American Indigenous peoples before European arrival. Many of us would recognize the format of a ‘talking circle’ (see note on talking circle below my sign-off on this post). The format of a talking circle is highly valued, is used in many contemporary healing practices, and for that, we owe gratitude to North American First Nations.

Circle Justice principles are easy to find in Restorative Justice models, and vice-versa.  The same principles and practices are also at the heart of Transformative Justice.  In many respects, the three differ only in emphasis given to intentions shared by all three.  Setting Circle Justice aside, Dr. Howard Zehr, Distinguished Professor of Restorative Justice at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, reviews similarities and differences between Restorative and Transformative Justice. His excellent post is here.

Transformative justice sites I’ve visited so far seem particularly focused on sexual abuse and inter-personal relationship or close community violence. This focus –  healing justice for harm within inter-personal relationships and close community – makes a lot of sense. Attitudes and expectations within a culture or subculture are strong influences on how interpersonal relationships ‘play out’.  If individuals experience injustice stemming in part from widely held attitudes and expectations, then community involvement in the healing/repair justice process can benefit all.  A transformative process intends to “make a thorough or dramatic change in appearance, form, or character”; the label transformative is an accurate reflection of this healing justice process.

Transformative Sites in the United States that come up most quickly in a browser search seem regional rather than national but reference one another. Generation Five seems particularly a leader; the Eastern Mennonite University Center site seems an exceptional resource and expands the concept to additional justice issues. The Alaska Justice forum also seems to me a key resource. Living Justice Press is, as the name implies, a resource for further study, books, videos, and on-site articles.  Descriptions at Transformative Justice Eu suggest a European focus on injustice and abuse that arises from cultural beliefs and expectations.

There are other sites – I mention and link only those that first caught my attention in a search for resources offering range and depth on Transformative Justice.  I encourage interested readers to run browser searches for transformative justice by nation, and for transformative justice in other categories, such as related to prisons.

All these – Circle, Restorative, and Transformative Justice models, are in my opinion, where we need to be “taking ourselves” as we reach for the “best we can be” in human society in the 21st Century. To access information on all three in one place, see Justice: Circle, Restorative and Transformative.

My Very Best! MaggieAnn

Supplemental notes/links:

*Re “talking circle” models of community problem solving. Talking circles are famous as a community communication structure. The circle approach combines individual concern and ideas with community need for harmonious prosperity. One device that’s key to talking circle activity, (a device now well known by many), is the talking stick. Very simply – the ‘talking stick’ is held by a group member while speaking; and during that time, others do not interrupt – but listen.  Excellent description of  talking stick – its history, use, underlying principles – and its relationship to talking circle, healing circle, and conflict resolution at TalkingCircle.Net.

Relationship of healing justice systems to democracy: Healing justice systems are fundamentally empowering to both individual and community. They have elements of consensus problem solving.  Honoring individual within community context is also what we like to think is available through democracy.  Dr. David Graeber‘s recent book, “The Democracy Project“, contrasts our experience in formal democracy with more satisfying community consensus practices that are more truly in line with our concept of what democracy ‘should’ be like. The ‘talking circle’ is a good fit for consensus model decision making, which is what most of us actually want, and find lacking in our “modern democracy” structures. Interview with David Graeber on his book “The Democracy Project” is available via KPFA, via, (about 50 min.).


About maggieannthoeni

A description once given of me was "rooted in the earth while roaming the stars" - and this has felt 'right'. I believe in something akin to this for each of us. I am a passionate supporter of discovering the autonomous self while serving the whole as primary intent. I believe in discovery of innate principles, clearing the overlay of socialization that obscures this from us. I believe it is our responsibility to leave no one behind - most particularly to respond to suffering as best we can whereever we find it, whenever we are made aware. I believe in this for the insect as well as the most magnificent form of humanity. I believe in brother/sisterhood without boundary. I believe in righteous indignation when it is appropriate, but do not believe in an enemy. I believe in consciousness, in intelligence, in logic, in rationality, in emotion, in transcendence - and am convinced until we generally practice explore and honor all this in ourselves, we remain profoundly immature. (I believe real maturity is known and practiced by many young children, and not enough adults!)
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