Why America Needs Another Kind of Justice

George Zimmerman's trial and its conclusion were a lesson in the limitations of retributive justice and the need for restorative approaches.

The verdict is in. George Zimmerman will not spend a day in prison for the killing of Trayvon Martin. Whether your response to the verdict was glee, grief, or indifference, there are lessons to be learned. Much of the national conversation has centered on whether or not justice was served. For me, the trial and its conclusion were a lesson in the limitations of retributive justice and the need for restorative approaches to justice.

What's the difference? Retributive justice is primarily focused on addressing the harm done to crime victims and the wider society through punishing the offender. This is the tradition of justice with which most of us are most familiar and it has its place in the social order. Punishment can provide a sense to victims and perpetrators alike that people are held accountable for their actions, that wrongdoing will be rectified in some way. However, I have lost faith in our ability to punish our way to better human beings or a better world. In the United States we have certainly tried.

Indeed, according to the Southern Center for Human Rights, the United States has less than five percent of the world's people, yet accounts for 25 percent of the world's prisoners. The incarceration rate in the United States is seven times higher than the rate in Western Europe, and more than one in 100 adults are currently incarcerated. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that at the end of 2011, about 6.98 million people were under some form of adult correctional supervision, the equivalent of about one in 34 U.S. adults—or about 2.9 percent of the adult population.

While the Bureau notes that this is an overall decrease, I doubt this comes as much comfort to the human beings behind the numbers. The impact of what some scholars refer to as mass incarceration has been devastating. Research suggests that these include the weakening of labor markets and economic strain on families and damage to life chances of children whose parents are captives in this system. Such sobering facts have forced me from an agnostic to a believer in that other tradition: restorative justice.

A remarkable example of restorative justice in action was the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa during that country's transition from a racial dictatorship to a multiracial democracy. The mission of the TRC included investigating alleged human rights abuses during the apartheid era and providing a forum for victims and perpetrators to tell their stories.

Among its more controversial elements was the possibility of amnesty for some perpetrators. In order to be considered for amnesty, applicants had to meet two conditions: their crimes had to be politically motivated and they had to tell the whole truth of what they had done. It's important to note that this process did not represent a "get out of jail free card." Of 7,112 petitioners, only 849 were granted amnesty. Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chair of the RTC says that restorative justice has deep roots in the African tradition of Ubuntu which involves recognition that "My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours." The application of Ubuntu to the administration of justice, says Tutu,

"… holds as central the essential humanity of the perpetrator of even the most gruesome atrocity, never giving up on anyone…Restorative justice believes that the offense has caused a breach, has disturbed the social equilibrium, which must be restored, and the breach healed, through a process through which the offender and the victim can reconciled and peace restored."


George Zimmerman being found guilty and punished for the killing of Trayvon Martin might have satisfied the demands of retributive justice. It might have satisfied the perfectly reasonable desire of many that he be held accountable for his actions. I wanted that as well. However, would the breach he caused in the fabric of the nation have been healed? Would reconciliation have prevailed and peace been restored?

These nagging questions may be why I have found it difficult to banish George Zimmerman beyond the bounds of my concern and compassion. Not because of what it might mean for him, but for all of us. Hope is the heart of restorative justice. In this case it involves at least the hope that the George Zimmermans of the world can change. Any real hope of a more racially just and equitable America requires such a change.

My hope is that among the many responses to this verdict, people will consider becoming serious students of restorative justice. Such students are actively exploring its implications in diverse contexts as an alternative to the limitations of punishment alone. These include practices such as family group conferencing—decision-making meetings that build upon the resources of family and the greater community; victim/offender dialogue—a face-to-face meeting with victim of a crime or surviving family member/s and the offender who committed the offense/crime; and circle process—drawing key stakeholders together to solve problems, establish support, and build connection.)

In Zimmerman's case, none of these practices would have necessarily precluded punishment in some form, but they might have broadened the focus and created additional possibilities for all parties and the wider community.

As we strive to better understand the implications of restorative justice, we can draw inspiration from those who have walked ahead of us. As Nelson Mandela, a man whose response to crimes committed against him exemplified the spirit of restorative justice once said, "No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate," said Mandela, "and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."

Trayvon Martin march image via Ira Bostic /

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