Restorative vs. Punitive Approaches: How They’re Different and Why We Should Be Paying Attention

The following is the third in a series of posts that are excerpted from the Action Alliance’s soon-to-be-released Harm and Accountability Conversation Seed Packet: A Discussion Guide to Support Sexual & Domestic Violence Programs as You Hold Conversations About Harm, Accountability, and Healing. You can find the previous posts here:

1: Sparking Conversations About Harm, Accountability, and Healing

2: Accountability Is a Healing Practice…And Unfortunately, Most of Us Aren’t Very Good at It

3: “Perpetrator” vs. “Victim” and the Impact of Carceral Logic

Scroll to the end to find out more about our upcoming webinar (June 25th) and how to gain access to this new

In this country, we have built a vast array of punitive (punishing) systems–from canceling people to school suspensions to incarceration to the death penalty, yet punitive systems rarely, if ever, deliver accountability. Why not?

As Danielle Sered of Common Justice points out, being punished only requires that we endure the suffering imposed upon us. It is passive. All one has to do to be punished is not escape. It requires neither agency nor dignity, nor does it require work. Many of our cultural norms in this country focus on retribution rather than repair or healing after harm is done.

Accountability requires us to take responsibility for our actions. When harm is done, it also means taking the steps necessary to repair the harm.

In contrast to punishment, accountability requires five key elements:[20]

  • Acknowledging one’s responsibility for one’s actions;
  • Acknowledging the impact of one’s actions on others;
  • Expressing genuine remorse when harm is caused;
  • Taking actions to repair the harm to the degree possible; and
  • Making changes so one no longer commits similar harm.

Punitive approaches may even impede accountability by forcing the person who caused the harm (often literally called the “defendant”) to defend, deny, and deflect, rather than take responsibility and acknowledge the impact of their actions.

In contrast, accountability processes seek to acknowledge the harm and repair the damage that was caused. This is called a restorative approach, and it’s founded on the premise that when harm is caused, it creates an obligation to the person harmed, and often to others in a group or community.

What are the key elements of a punitive approach vs. a restorative approach?

A punitive approach is often used in traditional forms of discipline, both within schools and the criminal legal system. It focuses on addressing the offender, enforcing rules, and often meting out punishment.

•The questions we ask in traditional discipline are: “What rule was broken? What punishment is warranted?

•The results are often exclusion and isolation, perhaps stigmatization of the offender, while the victim/survivor is often not consulted or heard.

Long-term consequences for this type of discipline in schools often mean lower attendance and graduation rates, larger academic performance disparities, and recidivism. In the criminal legal system, long-term consequences may include steep fines and fees, incarceration, losing contact with family, losing custody of one’s children, loss of employment that can send a family into poverty, and perhaps being physically harmed while incarcerated.

A restorative approach focuses on addressing the harm, building relationships and community, and healing and growth for all involved.

•The questions we ask in restorative practices are: “What harm was done? How do we repair the harm?

•The results are often inclusion and connectedness, reparations and strengthened relationships, social and emotional learning, the person who committed the harm taking responsibility, and the person who was harmed having a chance to be heard.

Long-term consequences in schools include improved school climate, lower suspensions and recidivism, higher attendance and graduation rates, and reduced disparities. Long-term consequences in adulthood may include learning how to take responsibility for future choices, positive behavior change, lower recidivism, and potential healing.

Restorative practices are aligned with a trauma-informed approach. You can see the similarities between restorative practices and trauma-informed responses when you look at them side by side.

Accountability processes should be grounded in understanding the impact of trauma, and focus on inclusion, connectedness, responsibility, and reparations. Accountability processes can be a crucial step in helping traumatized people start a healing journey.

We can shift away from punitive responses to more healing and transformative responses.

Whether we are applying accountability practices in our work or personal life, it’s possible to approach harm and wrongdoing from a healing and transformative perspective rather than a traditionally punitive approach. Healing approaches are more likely to produce the long-term change we are working to build.

How do we start these conversations?  

The Action Alliance is releasing a new discussion guide, the Harm and Accountability Conversation Seed Packet, to help those of us working in sexual and domestic violence programs begin to think more broadly about what accountability can and should look like, not only after harm is committed, but also in all aspects of our lives: our relationships, families, workplaces, and communities.  

Want to get your hands on the new discussion guide?  

The Action Alliance will hold a webinar on Tuesday, June 25, 2 pm-4 pm to launch the new Harm and Accountability Conversation Seed Packet: A Discussion Guide to Support Sexual & Domestic Violence Programs as You Hold Conversations About Harm, Accountability, and Healing. Webinar participants will be introduced to the discussion guide and its conversation starters and will be given free download access to the new discussion guide.

Register here (look for “Harm and Accountability Toolkit” as the training title)! 

Kate McCord is the Associate Director for the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance and has worked in the movement for more than 30 years.

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