The Ecology Of Justice

Making connections to stop crime

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Justice (IC#38)
Originally published in Spring 1994 on page 11
Copyright (c)1994, 1997 by Context Institute

The United States seems to be at a loss as to what to do about crime. We are incarcerating at a higher rate than any other industrialized country – a total of 1.3 million people at the end of 1992 – at an enormous human and financial cost. Businesses are paying a “security tax” in the form of private security services in order to stay in business. People are rushing out to buy guns, despite evidence that they are many times more likely to be used against a member of the family or a friend than to be used against a stranger.

Crime is costing the country an estimated $425 billion per year,[1] and although crime in the US is not climbing at the rate one would believe from listening to the political rhetoric, there are some worrisome trends. In particular, violent crime among teenagers is increasing, and, except for increasing the harshness of penalties, our political leaders seem to have few ideas about what to do.

Why are we trying so hard and accomplishing so little? Perhaps because we’re looking for quick solutions to the effects of crime without looking for ways to address the cause.

Crime comes about when the underpinnings of our culture fail, when the ties that hold us together, socialize our children, and satisfy our needs are broken. Just as the environmental crisis reflects our failure to act in mindfulness of the interdependence of the human species and the other living creatures of the Earth, crime reflects our blindness to the fundamental interconnectedness of people.

That sense of interconnectedness (or the lack of it) is felt most fully at the family and community scale. The bonds of family life provide the solid foundation that children (and adults) need to learn and grow. Those connections also provide a way of passing along values to the young and supporting family members in times of difficulties.

At the community scale, interconnectedness provides a sense of safety – a resiliency that helps those in trouble to bounce back. If one family neglects their children, chances are those kids can find another home in the neighborhood where they get some support and shelter. If someone is sick, neighbors will bring food. If someone is getting into trouble, the neighbors are likely to know about it and take steps to correct the situation. And in a community that works, those who make mistakes have an opportunity and an incentive to make amends and be reaccepted into the community.

When these community bonds fail, people begin to fear rather than rely on neighbors. Values come from the pseudo-community of television, rather than from the elders. Those who want something they don’t have may feel less compunction about taking it by force.

The absence of a sense of interconnectedness also manifests itself in policies at state and national scales and in the actions of large corporations. When these policies result in jobs moving away – pulling the economic rug out from under a community – the capacity of the people in those neighborhoods to meet their family’s needs and those of their community is further undermined. When people are unable to support their family or to have a reasonable hope for the future, their bonds to their family and community are put under enormous stress.

These policies may not be labeled as “crimes,” but like street crime, they grow out of a rupture in the sense of interconnectedness. And the dislocation caused by these actions results in – among other things – more crime.

Even the communities that get the new jobs that were moved away from other communities may not be better off. According to criminologist Elliot Currie, both communities experiencing economic booms and busts tend to have high crime rates. In either case, the structures of community are strained, and the sense of connectedness and rootedness either declines or never has a chance to get established.

If we wanted to sketch a hypothetical portrait of an especially violent society, it would surely contain these elements:

  • It would separate large numbers of people, especially the young, from the kind of work that could include them securely in community life.
  • It would encourage policies of economic development and income distribution that sharply increased inequalities between sectors of the population.
  • It would rapidly shift vast amounts of capital from place to place without regard for the impact on local communities, causing massive movements of population away from family and neighborhood supports in search of livelihood.
  • It would avoid providing new mechanisms of care and support for those uprooted, perhaps in the name of preserving incentives to work and paring government spending.
  • It would promote a culture of intense interpersonal competition and spur its citizens to a level of material consumption many could not lawfully sustain.

– Elliott Currie[2]


The result of the uprooting and neglect found in Currie’s “hypothetical portrait” is that the solid core of contributing adult members crumbles, and the institutions that provide the foundation of community fall apart. The community safety net is left tattered. Parents, exhausted by the long hours required to make ends meet or demoralized by their inability to cope with the hardships of poverty, may turn to drugs and alcohol. Kids are left on their own in what Elliot Currie refers to as “adultless communities.”

Even in communities less affected by poverty, school-age kids are isolated from adults by single-use zoning, which separates the world of work from the world of home and school. Adults in the US spend long hours working and commuting and, unlike many of their European counterparts, receive little support for taking time off to spend raising their children (see IC #37).

It is much more difficult to pass along values to young people when their ties to their parents, other members of the community, and to their own futures are so tenuous. Instead of learning about life and the importance of caring for one another from supportive adults, they learn about materialism, short-term gratification, and status from their peers and from television. And those young people who see no future for themselves feel they have little to lose by engaging in the high-stakes, dangerous game of crime.

It comes as no surprise then that children raised with so little experience of human interconnectedness should, then, feel little empathy for others. We are raising a dangerous generation indeed, and despite the rhetoric to the contrary, we can’t just throw these kids away.


As real community breaks down and television’s pseudo community takes its place, the real and perceived danger of crime increases. Media researcher George Gerbner’s studies show that those who watch a lot of television are far more likely to view the world as a mean, dangerous place and to act accordingly (see Reclaiming Our Cultural Mythology in this issue).

People then avoid meeting their neighbors or venturing on to the street, thus undermining the security that comes when neighbors look out for each other. Thousands of kids carry guns to school on any given day. The fantasy of the threat becomes the reality as disputes that once would have been settled with words or fists are settled with firearms.


Our sense of interconnectedness is further undermined by our approach to justice. In many cultures, including the British system in the years prior to the Norman Invasion, a crime was something to be resolved between the offender and the victim (and their families and community), with the goal of restoring wholeness and right relationships (see A Short History of Justice following this article).

The modern western system of justice interjects the state as the paramount victim. As a result, offenders no longer have to face the pain or damage caused by their acts. Instead of being held accountable to their victims, they face representatives of the state, who have not experienced real pain as a result of the crime.

There is little opportunity or support for the offender to seek forgiveness from the victim or seek reintegration into the community.

Meanwhile, with the state taking on the role of victim, the real victims of crime are left out. Many express a sense of having been re-victimized by the justice system, which rarely gives the victim any say in the outcome of a case, seeks collectable restitution for the victim, or even informs the victim as to when the perpetrator might be released and again be a threat.


In places where the victim is attended to by the justice system and given a voice in proceedings against an offender, healing from the crime appears to be much more effective. In Japan (see A Spiral of Success), in the Navajo Nation (see Life Comes From It), and in Genesee County, New York (see Genesee Peacemakers), justice officials have found that victims who are empowered and heard tend to be more interested in accountability and responsibility from their offenders than in vengeance. The sense of interconnectedness – even the sense of connection between victim and offender – begins to heal.

Likewise, when it’s clear to the community that the victim has been appropriately considered and compensated, it is easier for community members to re-accept the offender and to aid in his or her reintegration. The importance of community support for making a new life can not be overestimated.

The real solutions to crime, then, are not to be found in further empowering the state to interject itself through increasingly harsh law and order policies. Instead, we need to strengthen the social ecology that supports resilient families and communities. We need to build an economic base that is rooted in community and that provides young people with a real hope for the future. And we need to participate in creating a cultural ethos that values courageous non-violence.

When violations do occur, we need to do everything we can to rebuild the ties of accountability and mutual respect between offenders and the community, and offenders and their victims.

In cases where offenders pose a danger to others, incarceration may be necessary. But that doesn’t mean writing off that offender. Even within the prisons, inmates – in cooperation with people on the outside – are finding ways of healing old wounds, which in many cases, first led to their illegal actions (see Doing Time). So much more could be done if those opportunities were made available to all inmates.

While some of these policies are expensive in the short run, the savings of both lives and dollars immediately and over the years will be tremendous.

Just as in the environmental movement we learned that the best way to solve problems is at the source, rather than at the end of the pipe, we need to look upstream for the causes and solutions to crime.

Just as we have discovered that conserving energy is far cheaper than generating it – and provides numerous system-wide benefits – we need to conserve families and communities, which, intact are the best crime preventors.

Just as we can’t afford to throw away precious resources, we can’t afford to throw away people in trouble. It is when we are clear that we are all tied together through bonds of community, mutual interest, and caring that the solutions to crime become evident.

1 Cost of crime estimated by Business Week, December 13, 1993.

2 Confronting Crime, by Elliott Currie, Pantheon, NY, 1986. (see review of Elliott Currie’s book, Reckoning: Drugs, the Cities, and the American Future, in Reviews in this issue)

A Short History of Justice

Ancient cultures – whose legal systems form the foundation of Western law – viewed crime as an intensely personal event. Although crime breached the common welfare, the offense was not considered primarily a crime against the state as it is today. The community had an interest in addressing the wrong and punishing the offender. But ancient cultures held offenders and their families responsible to settle accounts with victims and their families.

This concept of justice is evident in ancient legal codes:

  • The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (c. 1700 BC) prescribed restitution in property offense cases.
  • The Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2060 BC) required restitution even in the case of violent offenses.
  • The Roman Law of the Twelve Tables (449 BC) required convicted thieves to pay double the value of stolen goods, and more if the thief had concealed the stolen goods in his or her home.
  • The earliest surviving collection of Germanic tribal laws (the Lex Salica, promulgated by King Clovis soon after his conversion to Christianity in AD 496) includes restitutionary sanctions for offenses ranging from homicides to assaults to theft.
  • Ethelbert, the Anglo-Saxon ruler of Kent, England, issued the Laws of Ethelbert (c. AD 600), containing detailed restitution schedules. For example, the laws differentiated the value of the four front teeth from those next to them, and those teeth from all the rest.
  • The Hebrews, perhaps more than any other ancient people, understood the importance of peace – shalom – in the community. Shalom meant much more than “absence of conflict” as many Westerners understand peace today. Shalom meant completeness, fulfillment, wholeness – the existence of right relationships among individuals, the community, and God. Shalom described the ideal state in which a community should function.

Crime was understood to break shalom, destroying right relationships within a community and creating harmful ones. Hebrew justice, then, aimed to restore relationships to wholeness.

Restitution was an essential part of that restoration, but it was not an end in itself. The justice process required a commitment not only to address the wrongs, but also to reconcile the parties and re-establish community peace.

That was, of course, not the only commitment. The victim, and the law itself, was also to be vindicated or requited. The purpose of the justice process was, through vindication and reparation, to restore shalom in a community that had been sundered by crime.


The Norman invasion of Britain marked the beginning of a paradigm shift, a turning away from the understanding of crime as a victim-offender conflict within the context of community toward the concept of crime as an offense against the state.

William the Conqueror and his descendants found the legal process an effective tool for centralizing their own political authority. They competed with the church’s influence over secular matters and effectively replaced local systems of dispute resolution.

In 1116, William’s son Henry I issued the Leges Henrici, securing royal jurisdiction over “certain offenses against the king’s peace, arson, robbery, murder, false coinage, and crimes of violence.” Anything that violated this peace was interpreted as an offense against the king, and offenders were thus subject to royal authority.

Under this new approach, the king became the paramount victim. The actual victim was denied any meaningful place in the justice process.

A new model of crime was emerging, with the government and the offender as the sole principal parties. Rather than centering on making the victim whole, the system now focused on upholding the authority of the state.

Excerpted from Restorative Justice, Theory, by Daniel W. Van Ness, David R. Carlson, Jr., Thomas Crawford, and Karen Strong © 1989 with permission of Justice Fellowship, PO Box 17500, Washington, D.C. 20041-0500.