Restorative justice is an approach to justice that focuses on reconciliation between offenders and victims and the community, with a goal of rehabilitation and righting of wrongs (Zehr, 2002).
It differs from other models of justice in the following ways:
- Retributive Justice: A focus on punishment and vengance against offenders.
- Distributive Justice: Taking money from offenders or privileged people and redistributing it to those in need.
- Restorative Justice: A focus on reconciliation between the offender and victims (Sherman & Strang, 2007).
This approach emphasizes the healing of harms and the mend of broken relationships, rather than merely punishing the perpetrator out of retribution.
In a restorative justice process, victims are given a voice and a central role. They have the opportunity to express their feelings and needs, and to have these addressed (Braithwaite, 2002).
After hearing from the victims, offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions, to understand the harm they have caused, to express remorse, and to contribute to the repair of the harm (where possible).
Ideally, it will lead to reparations and reintegration of offenders into their community with low recidivism rates (Van Ness & Heetderks Strong, 2010).
The process can involve mediated face-to-face dialogues, community conferences, and circles, among other methods.
Restorative Justice Key Features
Restorative justice has several key features that differentiate it from traditional punitive forms of justice. Here are these features explained in detail:
- Involvement of Stakeholders: Restorative justice brings together all stakeholders in the injustice caused – including offenders, victims, families, communities, and social workers (Sherman & Strang, 2007). By including all parties affected by the crime, we can develop a sense of shared responsibility for rectifying wrongs and achieving reconciliation.
- Victim-Centered Approach: Restorative justice recognizes that victims need to have a voice. The needs of victims are at the heart of the process. This is a significant divergence from retributive justice, which victims are often sidelined while the judiciary goes to work (Johnstone, 2018).
- Offender Accountability: Retributive justice doesn’t pay much attention to whether the offender has taken responsibility for their actions. Instead, it simply punishes them as a deterrent to others and vengeance against the offender. But a restorative approach recognizes that we need the offender to take responsibility if they are to be healthily reintroduced to society. Generally, in a restorative approach, the offender needs to acknowledge their actions, understand the harm caused, express remorse, and make efforts to repair the harm and fix relationships (Braithwaite, 2002).
- Repairing Harm: A cornerstone of restorative justice is the concept of repairing the harm caused by crime. This harm doesn’t have to be just financial and physical. It may also be emotional, social (harm to community), and even intergenerational (especially in regards to Indigenous people). This can be achieved through various means such as restitution, reparation, community service, or means that are agreed-upon by the victim (Van Ness & Heetderks Strong, 2010).
- Reintegration: A key pillar of restorative justice is reintegration to prevent ricidivism. It recognizes that imprisonment and retributive actions, which may still be part of the process, may also include alienation and social exclusion which can push the offender further toward criminal behavior. Therefore, the idea is to help offenders to build constructive relationships and develop a sense of place within the community post-offense (Zehr, 2002).
- Consensual and Voluntary: Restorative justice processes require the consent and participation of the victim, offender, and the community. Mediation is necessary, and voluntary participation is essential. Parties will also have the right to withdraw at any time, which may lead to a fall-back to a more retributive approach, or lower chances of parole (Umbreit & Armour, 2011).
Restorative Justice Examples
- Victim-Offender Mediation (VOM): This involves facilitated face-to-face meetings between the victim and the offender. The goal during this mediation process is for the offender to understand the impact of their actions upon victims and the community. Ideally, during this process, they will express remorse. Similarly, for victims, they will hopefully reach a point where they can agree on ways the harm can be repaired. This approach seems to have positive effects. For instance, Umbreit, Coates, and Vos (2004) found that VOM resulted in high levels of perceived fairness on behalf of the victim.
- Family Group Conferencing (FGC): Family Group conferences have their origins in traditional Maori conflict resolution (Maori are the Indigenous peoples of New Zealand). A key element of FGC is recognition that Whānau, roughly translated to “extended family” or “close community” should be part of the justice princess. The family group conference discusses the offense, its impact, and then decides collectively on sanctions and support measures for the offender (Marsh & Crow, 1998).
- Circle Sentencing: This is a practice drawn from indigenous justice traditions in Canada. It is particularly common among the Yukon First Nations. The offender, victim, community members, and justice professionals sit in a circle – representing equality of the members seated – to discuss the crime and its impacts. The aim is to develop a consensus-based resolution. This model continues to be used to this day in some Indigenous communities in Canada (Stuart, 1996).
- Restorative Justice in Schools: Schools are increasingly using restorative justice approaches to with recognition that retributive justice is often inappropriate for children, and can cause conflcit between children, families, and school authorities. Redistributive justice in schools addresses issues like bullying and conflict. The focus is on fostering dialogue, understanding, and repairing relationships. A study by Morrison and Vaandering (2012) suggests that such programs can lead to improved behavior and better school climates.
- Post-Incarceration Reentry Programs: These programs use restorative justice principles to reduce recidivism rates and improve the reintegration of ex-prisoners. These programs may involve, for example, elements of reconciliation, attempts at making amends to the community, and creating social support networks. They may be a condition of parole (Dhami, Ayton, & Loewenstein, 2007).
- Peacemaking Circles: Originating from Indigenous cultures in North America, this restorative justice approach brings together victims, offenders, family members, and community members to engage in a dialogue aimed at finding solutions to repair harm. The process emphasizes healing and restoration rather than punishment.
- Community Reparative Boards: These are used in some communities to allow local citizens to participate in the justice process. Offenders must accept responsibility for their actions and meet with a panel of community members, who then determine the appropriate reparations. Bazemore and Umbreit (1995) describe how these boards help offenders understand the harm they’ve caused and commit to actions that repair that harm.
- Restorative Justice in Workplaces: Restorative justice principles have been applied to address workplace conflicts. For example, a workplace may employ it in instances of harassment and bullying. Rather than resorting to punitive measures or simply canceling a contract, the emphasis is on dialogue and finding common ground in order to repair the harm (Latreille, 2011).
- Neighborhood Justice Panels: These involve trained community volunteers who meet with the offender (usually first-time and low-level offenders) to discuss the crime, its effects on the victim and the community, and agree on a suitable way for the offender to make amends. Skogan et al. (1995) show these panels are effective in holding offenders accountable and increasing community satisfaction with the justice system.
- Victim Impact Panels: Commonly used in cases of impaired driving offenses that have caused damage to families and communities, these panels consist of victims or relatives who share their experiences with offenders to help the offender reach a point of remorse and a desire to make ammends. The aim is to starkly make offenders understand the real-life consequences of their actions rather than allow them to ignore or block-out the impacts. A study by Woodall et al. (2007) found that participation in such panels can reduce recidivism rates.
5 Real-Life Restorative Justice Case Studies
1. The Hollow Water Community Holistic Circle Healing (CHCH)
This is a community-based, First Nation-initiated and controlled program in Manitoba, Canada, designed to deal with cases of abuse within the community. The four-circle approach can be explored in detail on this page. It incorporates traditional Aboriginal healing methods and was designed with Aboriginal elders. The program’s key aim is to break intergenerational cycles of violence and heal the wounds inflicted by abuse. It’s been reported that the CHCH has a success rate of over 80% in preventing recidivism (Couture et al., 2001).
2. New Zealand Family Group Conferences (FGC)
The FGC model is a central part of New Zealand’s youth justice system, especially among Maori and Pacific Islander youth. Operated by the Ministry of children (you can find it here), It involves bringing together the young offender, their family, the victim, and a police officer to discuss the offense and develop a plan for reparation. A review of this system found that it can reduce reoffending rates. It may also help to promote offender accountability and increase victim satisfaction with the justice process because they have their voices heard (Maxwell & Morris, 1993).
3. Thames Valley Police Restorative Justice Program
In the UK, Thames Valley Police initiated a program for restorative cautioning that aimed to keep young people out of the criminal justice system. The program brings offenders face-to-face with their victims, enabling an apology and restitution agreement. Evaluations of the program showed significant reductions in repeat offending and high levels of victim satisfaction (Shapland et al., 2008).
4. Community Conferencing in Baltimore, Maryland
The Community Conferencing Center of Baltimore offers a restorative justice process that brings together offenders, victims, and their supporters. In one case, a youth who had committed a robbery faced his victim and others impacted by his actions in a community conference. The process concluded with the youth committing to community service and an agreement to stay in school. Evaluations of the program have found a reduction in repeat offending (Beck et al., 2007).
5. Restorative Justice in Norwegian Prisons
Norway’s criminal justice system, particularly in its prison system, is often cited as a global model of restorative justice on a large scale. The emphasis is on offender rehabilitation and preparation for a crime-free life. For example, the prison Halden Fengsel is designed to resemble life outside as closely as possible, with jobs for the prisoners and a community with which they must engage in a prosocial manner, obtain training, commit to work, etc., so they don’t lose prosocial behaviors while imprisoned. The aim is to prepare inmates for reintroduction into society. The country has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world (Pratt, 2008).
Restorative Justice Benefits and Limitations
Restorative justice provides several benefits but also has limitations. Understanding both sides can help to form a balanced perspective and guide the application of restorative justice in varied contexts.
- Victim Satisfaction: Victims who participate in restorative justice processes often report higher levels of satisfaction compared to traditional justice processes because they are given a voice and their needs are considered (Umbreit, Coates, & Vos, 2002).
- Offender Accountability: Restorative justice encourages offenders to take responsibility for their actions. This process can lead to genuine remorse and a commitment to repair the harm caused (Braithwaite, 2002).
- Community Involvement: Restorative justice emphasizes the role of the community in resolving disputes and repairing harm. This can enhance community cohesion and mutual understanding (Zehr, 2015).
- Reduced Recidivism: Some research suggests restorative justice programs can lead to reduced recidivism rates among offenders, although this is not universally the case (Latimer, Dowden, & Muise, 2005).
- Healing and Closure: Both victims and offenders often report psychological benefits from participating in restorative justice, such as healing and closure (Sherman & Strang, 2007).
- Not Suitable for All Cases: Restorative justice may not be suitable or effective for all types of offenses or offenders. For example, in cases of domestic violence or where power dynamics are skewed, it may inadvertently place victims at risk (Coker, 2002).
- Requires Victim Participation: For it to be successful, both victims and offenders must be willing to come together. Often, victims are traumatized and are not psychologically prepared to participate.
- Dependent on Offender Participation: The effectiveness of restorative justice depends heavily on the offender’s willingness to participate genuinely and take responsibility for their actions (Braithwaite, 2002).
- Inconsistent Implementation: The quality of restorative justice processes can vary widely depending on the skills of the facilitators and the resources available, leading to inconsistent outcomes (Hoyle, 2012).
- Possibility of Secondary Victimization: Poorly handled restorative justice processes could lead to secondary victimization if victims feel pressured into forgiveness or if they are re-traumatized by facing their offender (Herman, 2005).
- Lack of Systemic Change: While restorative justice can address individual cases of harm, it may not address the systemic or structural factors contributing to crime (Woolford & Ratner, 2015).
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Zehr, H. (2002). The Little Book of Restorative Justice. Good Books.
Zehr, H. (2015). The Little Book of Restorative Justice: Revised and Updated. Skyhorse Publishing.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]