For many, if not most restorative justice programs, a basic principle is that it should only be used for people who have committed crimes, and who admit their guilt. See for example: http://www.staunton.va.us/directory/departments-a-g/court-services/restorative-justice-program.

After working with restorative justice for the last 15 years, I think this principal needs to be more carefully considered, and can be abandoned in some cases.

A restorative approach asking, “who was hurt, how, and what could be done to help them repair the harm?” when an injustice occurs, could be used by someone wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. People wrongfully convicted have been harmed and their loved ones have been harmed.

Recently, I saw how successfully RJ was used by someone who has steadfastly maintained innocence, and who does not take responsibility for the crimes she is in prison for.

The woman is serving several life sentences for crimes that she has denied since being convicted after a trial about 20 years ago. She was 18 when she went into prison and she has not seen two of her now adult children since then. Most of her children want a relationship with her and she wants one with them. The woman learned about restorative justice in a course we provide* in the prison, and she used an RJ process to focus how she could restore her relationship with her children, and address the harm caused them and herself, by her teenage drug use and her imprisonment.

The pain of losing a parent and losing children is huge and often the result when mothers and fathers go to prison. In this case both the children and the mother were able to hear and express their feelings and thoughts. It was a heartwarming process where not only was there some healing of the wounds caused from losing a vital loved one, but the woman also saw her sister for the first time in 18 years.

The woman takes responsibility for continuing to work on repairing her relationship with her children, and maintaining a clean and sober life style. It is consistent with what John Braithwaite and Shadd Maruna, two foremost leaders in justice reform, believe: that we should focus on getting people to address what they can do in the future to make things right and let go of our desire to make people admit guilt. See: Maruna & Mann, (2006). Fundamental Attribution Errors? Re-Thinking Cognitive Distortions. Legal and Crimiiological Psychology, 11, 155-177.

* A Gift of Listening for Hawaii’s Inmates, Walker & Sakai, Corrections Today, December 2006