Howard Zehr: A Pioneer in Restorative Justice

Howard Zehr, a distinguished criminologist, academic, and photographer, has long been regarded as the “grandfather” of restorative justice in the modern era. His contributions to the field have laid the groundwork for a profound shift in our understanding of justice, advocating for a system that aims to repair harm rather than simply punish wrongdoing.

Born on July 2, 1944, in Freeport, Illinois, Zehr grew up in a Mennonite family. His upbringing instilled in him the principles of peace, justice, and community, which would become cornerstones in his life’s work. He completed his undergraduate degree from Morehouse College in 1966 and went on to earn his Ph.D. in European History from Rutgers University in 1974.

Zehr’s journey into restorative justice began when he started working with the Mennonite Central Committee in the late 1970s. He began to see the systemic issues of the criminal justice system while working on cases of racial injustice in the American South. Zehr noticed the traditional system’s focus on punishment and disregard for the broader harm caused by crime to victims, offenders, and the community.

In 1990, Zehr published “Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice,” which became a seminal work in the field of restorative justice. He challenged the retributive justice paradigm, proposing a fresh perspective that viewed crime as a violation of people and relationships rather than merely breaking the law. He proposed a justice system that prioritizes healing, dialogue, and reconciliation over punishment, aiming to address the needs of all parties involved.

Zehr served as a Professor of Restorative Justice at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, where he continues to be a thought leader and innovator in the field. His teaching and research have influenced a generation of practitioners and scholars. Beyond academia, Zehr has worked directly with victims and offenders, facilitating restorative justice processes to promote healing and understanding.

Alongside his work in restorative justice, Zehr has also employed his skills as a photographer to further advocate for the humanity of those involved in the justice system. His projects, such as “Doing Life: Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Sentences” and “Transcending: Reflections of Crime Victims,” powerfully capture the human faces and stories often overlooked in discussions of crime and justice.

Zehr’s contributions to the restorative justice movement extend globally. He has provided consultation and training to organizations and justice systems around the world, helping to implement restorative justice practices from New Zealand to Brazil, and beyond.

In recognition of his profound impact on the field, Zehr has received multiple awards, including the Community of Christ International Peace Award in 2006. Despite his numerous accomplishments, Zehr remains modest and committed to the values of compassion and empathy that underpin restorative justice. His work continues to inspire and guide those seeking a more equitable, humane approach to justice.

In essence, Howard Zehr’s life and career illuminate a path to a more empathetic and constructive system of justice. He has redefined our understanding of justice, emphasizing the need for healing, reconciliation, and community building over retribution. His influence and impact in the realm of restorative justice have been profound, offering the promise of a justice system that truly seeks to repair harm and restore relationships.

Howard Zehr’s work in restorative justice has been transformative, advocated for many key ideas that shift the paradigm from punishment to restoration. Here are some central themes in his work:

  1. Redefinition of Crime: Zehr posits that crime should be seen not merely as breaking the law, but as a violation of people and relationships. This viewpoint expands the understanding of crime’s impact beyond the legal system, bringing into focus the emotional and societal damage caused by criminal actions.
  2. Healing Over Punishment: Zehr asserts that justice should aim at healing rather than punishment. This involves addressing the needs of victims, offenders, and the community to repair harm and rebuild relationships. This approach contrasts with traditional retributive justice systems, which primarily focus on punishing the offender.
  3. Inclusion of All Parties: One of the most transformative ideas in Zehr’s work is that all affected parties should be involved in the justice process, including the victim, the offender, and the community. This inclusive approach facilitates understanding and reconciliation, enabling a more comprehensive resolution of the harm caused by crime.
  4. Restorative Dialogue: Zehr emphasizes the importance of communication and dialogue in the justice process. He advocates for structured restorative justice conferences or circles, where victims, offenders, and community members can share their experiences, discuss the impact of the crime, and collaborate on a plan to repair the harm.
  5. Empathy and Respect: Zehr underscores the importance of treating all parties with empathy and respect, recognizing their shared humanity. This ethos is reflected in his photographic work, where he gives a voice and a face to those often marginalized or stigmatized by the justice system.
  6. Restitution: Zehr believes that offenders have a responsibility to make things right. This might involve restitution to victims, such as returning stolen property or compensating for damage, but also includes actions to address the broader harm caused by their behavior.
  7. Transformation: Ultimately, Zehr’s restorative justice aims at transformation: of individuals, relationships, and communities, and also of the justice system itself. He envisions a system that doesn’t just control crime but actively fosters peace, healing, and reconciliation.