Restorative Justice and Moral Neoliberalism

Amy J. Cohen – 

Today, groups of left organizers who wish to abolish the current penal system are practicing community mediation. They facilitate dialogic processes where people who have caused harm engage in active listening, relationship-building, and intensive forms of emotional, spiritual, and material reparations. These processes, variously called restorative justice or more often transformative justice and community-based accountability, are both practical and radical. Practical because while organizers wage political battles against the penal state for racial and economic justice, they simultaneously create spaces for people to opt out—to manage conflict and violence by cultivating love and forgiveness as well as armistice, separation, and safety through relationships and forms of reparations meaningful to them. Radical because these mediations prefigure an alternative just society, one in which individual and systemic change are co-constitutive processes.

As I outline in a forthcoming article, these organizers recall a small group of community mediation advocates in the 1970s and 1980s who linked delegalization and decentralization to left visionary politics. As I also outline, however, informal, anti-authoritarian practices of dispute resolution have often attracted bedfellows across a political spectrum. Likewise today, restorative justice enjoys growing support among Republican policymakers, evangelical conservative Christians, and libertarian thinktanks and organizations. Restorative justice is thus intriguing not only for how left organizers use it to advance prison abolition but also for how libertarian and conservative reformers have fashioned it into a tool of American neoliberalism.  Continue reading