Sally Swarthout Wolf

Life changed for Sally when she earned her MS degree in Healthcare Administration on the same day her youngest child received his BS degree. She had been working on both her BS and MS degrees since he had started first grade. As her children were growing up, she had worked in healthcare, volunteered in her church and church women’s organization, and gotten involved with prison ministry. That led to volunteering in a women’s prison every Tuesday evening for ten years in Kankakee. It was then that she developed her keen interest in the criminal justice system.


Just as she was getting her MS degree, the Director of Ford County Probation and Court Services position opened. She got the job. Working in probation, she was able to help keep people out of prison and give them a better chance to change their behavior. 


Soon she began hearing about restorative justice. As she learned more about how restorative practices could be used, she understood its potential to bring healing, wholeness, and a sense of belonging back into both schools and communities. She was hooked!


Sally received training from the National Institute of Corrections, International Institute for Restorative Practices, and visited several successful justice and community organizations that were using restorative justice practices in Minnesota. Then in 1998, Sally brought David Hines, a restorative justice practitioner and police officer from Minnesota, to train her probation staff and community volunteers. Ford County began using restorative practices. Later, she was mentored by Kay Pranis in using peacemaking circles. She traveled to the Nares Wilderness Camp in Carcross, Yukon Territory, Canada to sit in circle for ten days with Phil and Harold Gatensby and other First Nation members of the Raven Clan, of the Inland Tlingit Nation. She presented restorative justice workshops at a variety of national conferences, such as the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA), the National Conference on Restorative Justice at the University of Texas at San Antonio, churchwide assemblies of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP).


In November 2002, Sally gathered with 24 other Illinois restorative justice advocates to talk about moving restorative justice forward. Together they planned a Balanced and Restorative Justice (BARJ) Summit for the state that was held in September 2003. In 2006, the Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice Project (IBARJ) was incorporated as a 501c3 to strengthen the restorative justice momentum produced by the Summit. After receiving grant funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Sally became the executive director and, later, the director of training and program development. Her restorative justice trainings expanded into communities and schools across Illinois. She trained both state-wide and nationally and co-chaired numerous state-wide conferences. On two occasions, she trained the ten-day training for trainers at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP) BARJ Project at Florida Atlantic University, once in Florida and once when bringing it to Illinois.


When Sally was training in both communities and schools, she realized how counterintuitive it sometimes was to those who had spent years believing that getting tough on crime was the way to reduce crime. She knew incarceration and punishment had become core to American cultural ideas about justice. When some of her students thought restorative justice was too “touchy-feely” and idealistic, she shared great stories of her experiences using it. It worked. Stories made the theories understandable.


Sally realized that to make meaningful change, we need more than just data—we need stories. Joseph Campbell once said, “If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.” Restorative justice stories change the metaphor.


Now retired after more than twenty years working in restorative justice, Sally is actively finding other storytellers who have experienced the power of restorative justice in their own lives. Her mission is to share these stories to reveal to communities that there is a better way to do justice. And it works! The result will be published in a book called Restoring Community in America: Restorative Justice Stories of Healing, Wholeness, and Belonging.


If you would like to join this storytelling collaboration, please go to the “Story Submissions” page and let us know.