Sylvia's story

Unitive Justice gives our children an entirely new understanding of justice.

Sylvia Clute image courtesy VMHC.jpg

This is the story of how it all got started.

By Sylvia Clute

For 28 years I was a trial attorney. I can tell you from personal experience that we have a broken justice system that produces way too much injustice.

Ours is a system of proportional revenge—it answers harm with more harm and calls it “justice,” as long as the harm we do is equal in measure to the harm for which we seek revenge. 

When we say, “the punishment fits the crime,” or “I’m going to get even,” we are talking about proportional revenge.

Instead, we can implement a justice system that has no punitive elements, a system that may be called “justice as love.”

I discovered this concept in 1987 when, while practicing law and exploring my spiritual journey, I encountered the idea that there are two models of justice: vengeance and love.

I immediately understood the justice as vengeance part—that was what I did as a trial attorney. I had no idea what justice as love might look like, but I committed right then to understanding it.

Where should I begin to look for justice as love?

I knew that justice as love is not a band aid on the present system—it had to be an entirely new system with no punitive elements.

Alternative medicine was an attempt to make the old allopathic medical model more holistic—that proved to have some common elements. I also had a feeling that quantum physics would provide some clues: It is a new understanding that the material world exists at the gross level, but our fundamental nature exists at a deeper level, in a field of energy where everything is interconnected—there is no separation.
I found a lot of clues in understanding our oneness, beyond our physical existence.  

I also found that major religious traditions have lessons about justice as love, often called mercy and forgiveness, along with lessons about justice as vengeance. And “A Course in Miracles,” a text that teaches universal spiritual themes, was a key resource. My understanding of justice as love began to take shape.

Over the years, the more my understanding of justice as love deepened, the harder it was to walk into a courtroom.

In 2003, I left my law practice but continued my research and writing. I was honing what I now call Unitive Justice, an alternative model of justice that has no punitive elements. Unitive Justice sees the problem as separation and the solution as connection. It uses circle processes as one way to resolve conflict, create connection and heal past trauma.

In 2010, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to implement this model of justice in a troubled high school. We needed a non-profit to partner in a grant that would make this possible—that is how the Alliance for Unitive Justice, a Virginia non-profit, was created under the original name of Restorative Youth Services of Virginia.  

We used Unitive Justice in the high school from 2011 to 2013. State data on the number of disciplinary incidents in this school indicates that by the end of our second year in the school, there were nearly 75% fewer disciplinary incidents than the year before our program began.

In our program, the students went from being the problem to being the solution by learning how to address their conflicts with new tools.

Now, the Unitive Justice model is being used increasingly in diverse areas—education, criminology, conflict resolution and leadership. But it is still in an early phase.

Why is the work of the Alliance for Unitive Justice so important?

Unitive Justice can reduce the school-to-prison pipeline.

It can reduce mass incarceration.

It can make our neighborhoods safer.

And so much more.

Unitive Justice gives our children an entirely new understanding of justice. 

Please visit the AUJ website at www.a4uj.org.

You may contact us at info@a4uj.org.

This article was written in Rhea's Business Origin Story mini-workshop in April 2022