What Are…Punitive, Restorative, and Transformative Justice?

For quite some time, I’ve heard discussions about the differences between punitive and restorative justice. However, while starting to do research on a “what is” post comparing the two, I discovered yet another type of justice that is getting talked about more: transformative justice.

All that being said, what are punitive, restorative, and transformative justice?

In summary:

  • Punitive justice focuses on punishing the wrongdoer for the action that is wrong.
  • Restorative justice focuses on repairing the harm of the crime instead of taking retribution.[1]
  • Transformative justice focuses on reforming or overhauling systems that played a part in the wrongdoing in the first place.[2]

The difference between these three approaches to justice is stark yet important, because the differing approaches mean differing attitudes towards how various crimes and criminals are treated.

To illustrate this, I will use a hypothetical example: a kid who was bullied in a schoolyard and responded back by punching the bully. The punitive justice approach to this would involve the person who punched getting punished for the punch, as well as the bully getting punished for the bullying. For the same sort of situation, the restorative justice approach might involve a meeting in the school office involving the kids (and possibly their parents) to discuss where the bullying stemmed from, how it resulted in the punch, and how both can be addressed. A transformative justice approach in this sort of situation would involve a schoolwide (or districtwide) review of school bullying policies so as to make sure there are stronger anti-bullying protections, anti-bullying education, and making it easier for someone who gets bullied to bring it to the attention of a teacher or school staff person.

Personally, I am a fan of getting to the root cause of a problem and addressing it—as such, my approach of preference, if I had to choose one, would be transformative justice, whenever possible. Unfortunately, the will to do the sort of transformative justice required to address certain crimes is often lacking, therefore resulting in large-scale transformative justice sometimes being out of reach.

Restorative justice fails to bring that systemic transformative change, yet has become popular due to its being a way of (in some cases with the criminal justice system in the United States) addressing the issue without contributing to mass incarceration. It is the type of justice that allows for low-level drug offenders to go into treatment for drug rehab instead of entering prison without that rehab. On a related note, it must be said that transformative justice, in some cases, can get to the root cause of certain issues an individual may have, even if it doesn’t get to root systemic issues.

Punitive justice, on the other hand, is the makeup of a lot of punishment in the American criminal justice system. And, at times, the criminal justice system is critiqued for being overly punitive, like in cases where criminals end up with long prison sentences for the aforementioned low-level drug offenses. Some believe that such bruising punishments can act as a deterrent to other people, yet at the same time, there are at least some types of crimes where it must be questioned whether a punitive approach is really the wisest one.

Hopefully, this post helps separate what punitive, restorative, and transformative justice all are. That being said, if you have questions or comments about any or all of these terms, feel free to comment below!


[1] https://emu.edu/now/restorative-justice/2011/03/10/restorative-or-transformative-justice/

[2] Ibid.

5 Replies to “What Are…Punitive, Restorative, and Transformative Justice?”

  1. This is such an interesting post, Brendan. Many years ago, I posted an experience that was shared by a Blackfeet mother during an interview. I’m sharing an except here because I think you might find it relevant and interesting even though it was recorded during a research study about Native American health issues.

    “… I would like to share a story that shows what we miss when we only see people’s problems. One of the study participants first described the many physical conditions that made mobility difficult for her, the financial challenges that made accessing prevention and treatment services so difficult, and the discrimination that made her reluctant to even try. Then, she told a story about the discrimination her son faced in the public school system. White students taunted him, called him names, and pulled his braid. She and her husband met with the principal to share their concerns. The principal promised he would discipline the white youth involved and make sure the bullying ended. She and her husband offered a different solution. As a family, they proposed to share their tribal culture in a ceremony and performance for the whole school so all teachers and students would have a better understanding of their history and culture. The principal accepted their solution. Instead of perpetuating resentment through punishment, the performance did result in improved relationships and understanding. The former bullies befriended their son, as did other students and teachers. To only see this woman as a victim negates her ability to be seen for all that she is and has to offer others.” (http://voices-from-the-margins.blog/2015/03/06/when-you-think-of-health-what-comes-to-mind/ )

    Liked by 1 person

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