Restorative justice programs focus on the harm caused by what a criminal does rather than only on punishing the criminal. Unlike older approaches that seek retribution for criminal behavior, restorative justice focuses on healing for the crime victim and the potential for the forgiveness of the criminal. 

Restorative justice views crime in terms of the damage it does to people, relationships and the community. Advocates of restorative justice believe that a just response to crime involves addressing those harms as well as the wrongdoing itself. That includes both the criminal and victim meeting to discuss how to bring resolution to these harms. 

Understanding the details and nuances of models of justice is part of what students learn in a high-quality online Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice degree program. The program prepares those who aspire to leadership in the criminal justice field for successfully achieving their career goals.  

Punitive Practices vs. Restorative Justice Practices

Prison Fellowship International (PFI) provides a formal definition of restorative justice programs this way: “Restorative Justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that allow all willing stakeholders to meet, although other approaches are available when that is impossible. This can lead to the transformation of people, relationships and communities.” 

One way to understand restorative justice practices is to compare them to punitive justice practices, which is the way justice systems have operated for centuries. 

Punitive justice incorporates the following ideas:  

  • Society should punish crime using the theories of retribution, deterrence, incapacitation or rehabilitation 
  • The threat of punishment can deter crime 
  • Punishment holds criminals accountable.  
  • Victims and the community don’t play a big role in the justice process.  
  • The focus is on finding blame or guilt  
  • Criminals have difficulty removing the stigma of crime from their lives 
  • The justice system revolves around determining the laws broken, who broke the law and the appropriate punishment 

The “foundational principles” of restorative justice programs include the following, according to the PFI.  

  • Crime causes harm and justice should focus on repairing that harm 
  • The people affected by crime should participate in its resolution 
  • The government’s responsibility is to maintain order, the community’s responsibility is to build peace 

Further, the organization writes that restorative justice programs should include the inclusion of all parties, an opportunity to encounter the other side, an ability to make amends for the harm caused and reintegration of everyone involved back into their communities. 

The Pros and Cons of Restorative Justice

Debate continues over the viability of the restorative justice model. Proponents of the concept point to statistics that show victims had positive feelings about the process. For example, the Restorative Justice Council in the United Kingdom reported that 85% of victims who took part were satisfied with the process and that restorative justice reduced the frequency of reoffending by 14%. 

Detractors point to the fact that some victims left the process in worse condition because the criminal showed no empathy or remorse. Others fear criminals want to enter a restorative justice program to avoid the harsher punitive punishments for their crimes. Offenders may also have a bad experience if the victims attempt to shame them.