Finding one American approach to restorative justice (RJ) practices is difficult; policies, programmes and approaches differ within the USA from state to state. The Covid-19 pandemic highlights the lack of coordinated effort and the need for a unified restorative justice vision.

  • Systemic factors hinder the creation of a nationally coordinated restorative justice effort.
  • Restorative justice practitioners are using the online format and focusing on community well-being during pandemic.
  • Inequities in the impact of the pandemic among different communities need restorative responses.

In the USA there are three main areas of RJ focus. These are: 

  • reforming the criminal justice system to establish victim-centred justice and put a stop to mass incarceration,
  • reshaping school discipline to foster social-emotional development in youth and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline (The full film can be purchased from Teachers Unite.)
  • developing community networks to counter the effects of institutional racism and inequity.

To meet these needs there are countless organisations promoting and providing RJ practices all around the country. Some of them gather RJ practitioners to national conferences or offer information on local programmes and training in communities from coast to coast. But none has managed so far to create a single vision or action plan for broadening RJ practices nationally.

Governing system

The United States has a complicated governing system giving individual states and municipalities the power to set their own policies in certain domains, so long as those policies don’t infringe on rights enshrined in our nation’s constitution. This means that from New York to Nevada, from Idaho to Illinois, approaches to providing health care, establishing voting procedures and creating educational, criminal justice and other systems vary greatly, and that most organisations working to improve services and outcomes in their field are working in isolation from, rather than jointly with similar groups in neighbouring states. Efforts to promote RJ practices throughout the USA are no exception to this phenomenon.

The Covid-19 pandemic has served to highlight many systemic failures that restorative practices seek to set right, as well as a lack of national vision around substantiating the effectiveness of RJ practices and broadening their implementation. While some national attention is turning toward ideas for effective systemic reforms that include social work and other restorative-aligned services, strategies to implement any solutions remain piecemeal at best and neglected at worst. This plays out in a number of ways.

Criminal justice

In the American criminal justice system, federal zero tolerance and so-called three-strikes policies put into effect in the 1980s and 1990s have led to mass incarceration, disproportionately affecting people of colour and marginalised communities, and resulting in overcrowded prisons. Prisoners live in close quarters, share lavatory facilities, and often are responsible for providing their own personal hygiene supplies. No money to spend at the prison shop may mean no soap to wash your hands. Prison guards and administrators are in close contact with prisoners and with each other daily.

As the country began coming to grips with the fast-spreading coronavirus, valid concerns were raised that prisons under these conditions would rapidly become hotbeds of contagion for both inmates and staff. According to New York City’s Center for Court Innovation (CCI), by early May 2020 the rate of Covid-19 infection at New York City’s Rikers Island jails was five times higher than the rest of the city and almost thirty times higher than that of the nation as a whole. There was a call for the release of non-violent prisoners to alleviate overcrowding, an action taken by many states. Reflecting on the situation, a 14 May 2020 opinion piece in USA Today asks what prisons will look like after the Covid-19 pandemic, challenging the efficacy of old ‘tough on crime’ ideas, reminding readers that ‘40% of the incarcerated population doesn’t present a public safety concern,’ and offering three valuable reforms, the first of which is a shift away from punitive responses to crime and toward restorative justice. These reforms are indeed badly needed and have been promoted within the restorative justice community for some years. But on a national scale who is meant to lead this reform effort? That question is not addressed at all in the article. While there is some countrywide attention to the need for criminal justice reform, including a section of a covid-19 relief bill proposed by the federal House of Representatives in mid-May, to date there is no coordinated push to ensure that RJ Practices are codified into these reforms.

US Youth Incarceration Pie Chart

Local organisations

This has left local organisations and networks that provide and promote restorative practices to carry the load individually and independently. How are they accomplishing this during the pandemic?

Groups with track records such as CCI have had some notable success in adjusting their programmes effectively during the Covid-19 crisis. Working to secure the release-under-supervision of more than 300 prisoners awaiting trial at Rikers Island, they collaborated with the NYC Mayor’s office and other support agencies to devise a system for supervision during social distancing, providing both necessities for newly released prisoners lacking resources and ’phones to ensure that they could maintain supervisory contact during the pandemic.

Another New York City agency, exalt, works with adjudicated teens in court to avoid indictment and incarceration, and provides support programmes and internships. With state courts in New York having suspended all non-essential functions, the organisation is working with prosecutors to see if there are openings to dismiss charges against youth who participate in exalt programmes, through which they learn life skills, pursue academic achievement, set goals and participate in training and paid professional internships — adapted to include online peacebuilding circles and virtual internships during social distancing.

Working with at risk youth outside schools, Eric Butler has adapted circles to the virtual format. He has facilitated remote training in circle keeping and online talking circles with youth from California to Alabama and acknowledges the difficulties. They are lacking the energy that is palpable in a room when people come together and they cannot be sustained as long as in-person circles. Yet Eric has found advantages to this online format as adolescents step into their leadership in technological know-how, recognise that they have something to teach as well as to learn and begin to focus on problems at home, allowing richer conversations about root causes, community needs, and values held in common. They discover that the same social media that has been used to cause or escalate conflict can be used to de-escalate or solve conflicts and they can start to shift their electronic communications.

These inspired diverse efforts are a drop in the bucket given the overall numbers; according to the Prison Policy Initative, on any given day as a result of adjudication upwards of 48,000 juveniles are detained in a variety of settings, from adult prisons to halfway houses, across the USA.

The Sentencing Project has found that in total there are over two million people in prisons and jails throughout the country. Without a robust nationwide RJ effort in place, making headway to reduce these numbers during the Covid-19 crisis is in the hands of local governing agencies, which are focused on salvaging their economies before elected officials can bring attention to collaborating with restorative justice providers on reforms that, in the final analysis, can be controversial among some of their constituents.

Figure: Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie 2019


In education the landscape has been completely altered. School closings mean online instruction, which is fraught with challenges, from teachers’ lack of technological expertise to inequities in Internet and electronic device access: the digital divide. Additionally, one of the effects of business lock-down for cities most heavily impacted by the Covid-19 virus is a tremendous loss of tax revenue, some of which normally funds local education systems. Decisions have to be made about which programmes are essential to fund and how to provide them virtually. Unfortunately, RJ practices have been among the first school programmes to be eliminated under remote learning.

Emerging trends show some community-based educational enrichment agencies offering no-cost RJ training and much-needed resources for school administrators and districts during the pandemic. Kay Pranis, a leading international RJ trainer and peace circle keeper, has provided a resource for Online Support Circles in Response to Social Distancing through Living Justice Press. It is offered freely to any practitioner who wants guidance in leading online circles. But one has to know that it exists and where to look for it.

Centrepiece from a healing circle

Nancy Riestenberg, Minnesota Department of Education Restorative Practices Specialist has seen circle keepers adopt these guidelines and others suggested by the online RJ community. They note that elements framing the circle — the opening and closing, values round, etc. — are especially essential online. Nancy recognises the challenges of virtual circles; a lot of preparation is needed to make them effective and it isn’t the same as sitting together in circle, but these adaptations allow us to ‘continue to connect and have all voices heard.’

Among the RJ community there is clarity that students and staff at schools will need RJ more than ever once we return to on-site classes. Everyone is experiencing the effects of the pandemic differently. One Columbia School of Social Work instructor uses the apt metaphor that we are all in the same storm, but some of us are weathering it in sturdy, luxurious yachts while others have leaky rowing boats they are perpetually struggling to bail out just to stay afloat. Community healing circles for all would be ideal when we can re-open schools. Circles will allow those most heavily afflicted by the pandemic to obtain the support they need and those less affected to understand how systemic inequities disproportionately impact different segments of the community. Rebuilding communities and schools to be more inclusive and equitable is going to be essential to community well-being and the ability of all to thrive. To date there is no coordinated national movement to make this happen.

Figure: Centrepiece from a healing circle

Mutual aid

One encouraging occurrence during the pandemic is the expanded development of mutual aid networks around the USA. Mutual aid groups have a history of forming in response to crises, whether they are caused by hurricanes, pandemics, violent conflicts, or other events. In areas where people need food supplies and other aid during the pandemic mutual aid groups have sprung up quickly. Big Door Brigade out of Seattle, Washington, provides resources and tool kits for active mutual aid as well as guidelines for safely delivering aid during the pandemic. Mutual Aid & Restorative Justice provides online circles for all communities as well as direct aid to those in need and opportunities for volunteers. A national mapping project by the Mutual Aid Hub shows how widespread these networks have become during the Covid-19 crisis.

Such groups may be the key to helping those in greatest need to access services and support. Covid-19 health care workers and first responders are overwhelmed and exhausted with caring for the sick and with providing food and other necessities at daily risk to their own well-being. These very factors make it more difficult to introduce new online practices that might help sustain them through the crisis. While many restorative justice virtual support and healing circles are being offered, due to inequities and lack of a cohesive system, without connections through mutual aid networks they often cannot reach the populations who need them most. This is where the scope of mutual aid societies can make a difference and where a nationally unified restorative justice practices movement would benefit the whole society.

Despite generous resource-sharing on the part of the restorative justice community during the pandemic, media coverage of the positive outcomes of restorative justice practices, and nationwide calls to address the inequities of the American criminal justice and school discipline systems, to date there is no unified vision on how to launch a national action to expand implementation of restorative justice. But there is a burgeoning will to make this happen. And where there is a will, there is a way.

 Lucille Rivin

Lucille Rivin is the Former Director of Curriculum and Project Development
web: The Leadership Program