Transformative justice: building a compassionate and equitable criminal justice system

As a practicum student, I was nervous about stepping into the work of Canadian Friends Service Committee (CFSC). I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in and unsure if my values would truly align with CFSC’s, since I’m not a Quaker. When I reviewed the testimonies and Canadian Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends’ 1981 Minute on Prison Abolition, I found myself surprised that my morals, beliefs, and values closely match those of Quakers in Canada.

In 1981 Friends reached a unified position (minute number 93) in support of penal abolition. The minute expresses the Quaker concern for transformative justice and the need to move away from punitive measures within the criminal justice system. It emphasizes the importance of rehabilitation, community support, and alternatives to incarceration.

The minute calls for a critical examination of the flaws and harm inherent in the current system. It recognizes the disproportionate impacts on marginalized communities—particularly communities of colour—and seeks to address systemic racism and promote equity. Minute 93 serves as a guiding statement for Quakers and others committed to penal abolition and transformative justice.

When I worked as a youth justice case worker in West Scarborough I gained firsthand insight into the urgent need for transformative change within the criminal justice system. In that community—predominantly composed of marginalized individuals—I witnessed the devastating impact of systemic racism and inequality. Young people, especially those from racialized backgrounds, are disproportionately affected by over-policing and harsh sentencing practices. This resonates deeply with the principles set forth in Minute 93 and with the Quaker commitment to transformative justice. It affirms the necessity of centering the narratives of marginalized communities and advocating for alternative approaches that prioritize rehabilitation, community support, and equity.


“I gained firsthand insight into the urgent need for transformative change within the criminal justice system.”

Through my work I’ve witnessed the transformative power of restorative practices and the potential for healing when individuals have the opportunity—in a supportive environment—to address underlying causes of their actions. There were many times when I facilitated open dialogues between youth, their families, and victims. Often times a young person charged with an offence grew to understand the impact of their actions, leading to genuine remorse and a desire to make amends. In this restorative circle, a supportive environment was provided for people to share and to begin to address underlying causes of harmful behaviour. The youth received support for core issues such as substance use and family conflicts, fostering personal growth and accountability.

Restorative practices are instrumental in stopping a cycle of re-offending, thereby setting youth on a path to a brighter future. The value of a restorative approach is further demonstrated by the eagerness of many youth to participate in mentorship programs after their initial engagement. This validates the impact of these practices and the desire of these individuals to “give back” by assisting others facing similar challenges. Such outcomes exemplify the transformative power of restorative approaches in nurturing empathy, personal growth, and a commitment to positive change within the community.

During my time at CFSC I’ve had the opportunity to engage in advocacy to promote policy reform within the criminal justice system—calling for changes to address systemic inequalities and reduce the reliance on punitive measures. One example is collaborating with the organization YouthRex to create a webinar with expert speakers, including CFSC’s Nancy Russell. The webinar focused on educating front-line child and youth workers and others about how to support youth with incarcerated family. Those with lived experience led the conversation, which raised awareness about current systemic inequities. You can watch a recording.

While at CFSC I’ve also had the chance to speak with two teenaged youth about concerns they had around remaining connected with and visiting an incarcerated family member. Through conversations like this CFSC offers practical assistance—in this case referring the family to specialized agencies that work closely with people facing similar situations, as well as sharing the documentary Bonds that Hurt, Bonds that Heal.

Empowering families directly impacted by incarceration to share their experiences and advocate for change not only fosters healing and connection but also serves CFSC on two crucial fronts. Firstly, it enables us to stay informed about the grassroots-level challenges and realities within the criminal justice system. Secondly, our practical assistance in connecting families with relevant support organizations is a tangible expression of CFSC’s commitment to promoting a more compassionate approach to criminal justice.

As an individual who identifies as a person of colour and does not belong to the Quaker community, I hold a multifaceted perspective on Minute 93. It can be read as a crucial acknowledgement of the systemic injustices that permeate the criminal justice system. It serves as a recognition of the disproportionate impact that policing, sentencing, and incarceration have on marginalized communities, specifically those of colour. And it’s a call to confront historical oppression, urging us to dismantle the structures that perpetuate racial disparities within the criminal justice system. I deeply appreciate the emphasis placed on transformative justice, rehabilitation, and community support as viable alternatives to punitive measures.

In the past five years, we’ve witnessed a growing global movement towards reimagining the existing penal system. Public conversation on the need for revolutionary change has been sparked by the emergence of movements like Black Lives Matter and the demand for justice reform in the wake of high-profile incidents of police violence. These events have shed light on the systemic racism ingrained in the criminal justice system and ignited conversations about the over-policing and over-incarceration of communities of colour. The pandemic has further exposed the vulnerabilities and health risks faced by individuals within prisons, prompting discussions on the need for de-incarceration and alternative approaches to justice. These events serve as significant reminders of the urgency to address deep systemic issues, highlighting the ongoing relevance and timeliness of Minute 93’s principles in fostering a more just and equitable society.

I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to have worked with CFSC and to have delved into the principles of the prison abolition minute. CFSC’s commitment to transformative justice and the pursuit of penal abolition resonates strongly with my understanding of social justice and the urgent need for systemic change. As I move forward, I am inspired by Minute 93 to continue advocating for a more inclusive and compassionate society, where the voices and experiences of those affected by the criminal justice system are centered and where justice is truly transformative.

Tanya Gupta is a practicum student serving CFSC’s criminal justice committee.