An Introduction to Restorative Justice

Scales of justice on a table.

“Restorative Justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior,” explains the Centre for Justice & Reconciliation (CJR). Although the concept is far from new, it gained modern prominence in the 1970s as an alternative to traditional methods of handling crime, The New York Times reports. Understanding restorative justice is valuable for those who seek to both assist victims of illegal behavior and reduce recidivism among offenders.

Differences in Punitive and Restorative Justice Models

Traditional (or “punitive”) and restorative justice systems arise from differing ideas about the nature of justice, fairness and responsibility. While the punitive system emphasizes punishment, the restorative justice model emphasizes reconciliation between the offender and victim. Below are specific contrasts, according to the Conflict Solutions Center and Howard Zehr’s books on restorative justice, including The Little Book of Restorative Justice.

Punitive Justice

  • Crime is considered an act against the state.
  • The threat of punishment and punishment itself deter crime and change behavior.
  • Punishment is the way to hold an offender accountable.
  • Victims are on the sidelines of the justice process.
  • Focus lies on establishing blame or guilt.
  • The community is peripheral to the process.
  • The stigma of crime cannot be eliminated from the offender’s life.
  • No encouragement for repentance or forgiveness is usually offered.
  • Asks three questions: What laws have been broken? Who did it? What do they deserve as punishment?

Restorative Justice

  • Crime is considered an act against another individual and the community.
  • Punishment alone is not effective; in fact, it can be harmful to both the individual and community.
  • Offenders’ accountability occurs through assuming responsibility, understanding the impact of their crime and actively taking action to repair harm.
  • Victims play a central role in the justice process.
  • Focus lies on problem-solving and obligations.
  • The community facilitates the process.
  • The stigma of crime can be eliminated from the offender’s life through restorative action.
  • Encouragement for repentance and forgiveness.
  • Asks three questions: Who has been harmed? What are their needs? Who has the obligation to repair the harm?

Application and Use of Restorative Justice Practices

 The restorative justice model can be employed both inside and outside of the criminal justice system. Some of the first uses of restorative justice occurred within police stations and the jurisdictional reach of law enforcement, CJR reports. It is practiced in the court system, often with juvenile offenders. Restorative justice may occur within prisons, both to resolve internal conflicts between prisoners and to bring healing to victims of violent crime.

Outside the criminal justice system, the use of restorative justice is wide-ranging. It can operate in schools, businesses, organizations, faith communities and even in countries transitioning from national conflicts or oppressive governments.

Pros and Cons of Restorative Justice

 Although a versatile model, there is still much debate over the practicality and appropriate application of restorative justice.

Those in support of restorative justice say that victims claim to receive significant benefit. An article from the University of Montreal reports that victims who participated in restorative justice programs generally believed the process was fair, and their personal feelings of fear and anger declined after participating. In addition, the Smith Institute reports positive results after analyzing numerous studies. Some include:

  • Both crime victims and offenders who receive restorative justice efforts tend to do better, on average, than those who do not.
  • Restorative justice tends to reduce repeat offending particularly with serious, violent crimes.
  • Restorative justice is as good or better than short prison sentences for combating repeat offending.
  • Restorative justice reduces the stated victim’s desire for violent revenge against offenders.
  • Offenders who take part in restorative justice are more likely to make reparations for injuries.
  • Both parties tend to feel as though they have been given the opportunity to discover constructive solutions.

However, restorative justice is not without negative aspects. It can prove problematic in several ways, particularly regarding victims’ needs. Restorative justice is viewed by many as a way for offenders to avoid entering the formal criminal justice system and as a prevention method for system overload. With offenders as the focus, it can be difficult for victims to achieve autonomy within the process. Facilitators may mediate with offenders indirectly, thus removing victims from the process altogether. Victims are sometimes brought into the restorative justice system as a pretext for pursuing education initiatives for offenders, and they are even pressured to take part when they do not wish or are not ready to do so. Finally, restorative justice systems are frequently set in motion by services that work with offenders, rather than advocate networks for victims or the victims themselves.

Clearly, restorative justice is not a catch-all method. Its application must be thought-out well and utilized when appropriate.

Studying Justice Models

Alternative models of justice must be understood in their full nuance to be used effectively. With the online criminal justice degree from Point Park University, students can become experts in improving crime management on behalf of their communities. The program can be completed in as little as two years, providing a fast track to new career opportunities.

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