University Park, IL,
14:33 PM

Joao Salm


Restorative Justice Expert

Governors State University (GSU) Professor Joao Salm’s introduction to the concept of restorative justice came at the age of 21 — after a drunk driver ran into his car nearly ending his life.

Salm, a GSU Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, is a Brazilian native who grew up between Los Angeles and the island of Florianopolis. He was living on the island when the drunk driver hit him. Salm did not want prosecutors to throw the book at the other driver. Rather, he told his father he simply wanted the other driver to get help and to hear about the pain and trauma he caused him.

“At that time, I did not know what I longed for was called restorative justice,” he recalled. “It was an internal motivation—something inherent to my convictions that this is what I wanted.”

He tried to get a meeting between himself and the other driver set up, but ultimately the driver declined. “He never took responsibility for it,” said Salm, who joined GSU in 2013.

Though he acknowledges that restorative justice (RJ) is not a panacea and it will not solve all the injustices of the world, Salm believes it has great potential to address harm in a meaningful way.

“Restorative justice is a set of principles and practices that allow us to participate and engage in the process of constructing justice collectively,” he said. “For example, if in our community there is a certain harm occurring, how can we come together as concerned citizens to address that harm or that injustice, and put an action plan together to address that injustice?”

In his classes, students learn the core principles of RJ — values, relationships, responsibility, addressing harm and strengthening the community and how to put them in practice by using victim offender mediations, peacemaking circles, family group conferencing and truth in reconciliation commissions.

For finals, students took a problematic situation—such as a teenager shooting out a window—and presented a mock peace circle to show how problems can be discussed and addressed using restorative justice.

GSU NEWSROOM: Besides teaching, how do you promote RJ?

Salm: I have traveled to Brazil, Fiji, and Guinea Bissau in West Africa to share what I know about restorative justice and help put it into practice. I have also worked as a consultant for the United Nations Department Programme in the South Pacific and currently serve as a consultant to the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund in Guinea Bissau. Our project is part of a $1.4 million grant approved by the United Nations that began in January and ends in June of 2019.

GSU NEWSROOM: Where have RJ principles had the most influence in the U.S.?

Salm: One of my students, a police officer, told me he is facilitating peace circles within the department and that it has become very productive to address concerns from colleagues. Another student wants to provide housing and foster care for children who are wards of the state and her intention is to build on a foundation of restorative justice and reintegrate these children with the community and families but also have a constant community meeting using restorative justice practices.

GSU NEWSROOM: How about internationally?

Salm: In the Solomon Islands, we have rebel leaders meeting with community members asking for forgiveness for the atrocities they caused many innocent victims and their families. What’s most fascinating, is that these rebel leaders took it upon themselves to implement restorative justice in other capacities.

GSU NEWSROOM: How does RJ compare with the U.S judicial system?

Salm: The US criminal justice system is based on punishment, revenge, and antagonism which leads to further segregation and separation. Justice is many times coercive and oppressive. The criminal justice uses a top-bottom approach to implement justice. Restorative justice is a participatory and reasoning justice system, which addresses harm through collective responsibility, integration and strengthening relationships.

In order for restorative justice to be effective people have to come together in a meaningful way. You can’t just have one person who wants to do it; the affected community needs to want it to happen. It’s not only about my will or my motivation; it’s everyone. You can’t coerce people or obligate them to do it.

If the premise for us is that justice is something we build together, on an everyday basis, through dialogue, it is not something we hire someone to achieve it for us, in a certain court, but something we need to engage and spend time to reflect on as part of the practice of freedom, then it is easier to understand restorative justice.

GSU NEWSROOM: What do you want your students to take from your class?

Salm: I expect my students to use their knowledge and translate it into action as a process of transformation. I expect that they have a leading role in that process and that they become actively engaged citizens and an inspiration for their communities.