Restorative justice, while a relatively recent, and still somewhat marginal, component of modern criminal justice systems, has long been part of efforts to respond to and prevent crime within a variety of local communities. Approaches in criminology, such as restorative justice and peace-making criminology, express the value of collective efficacy or “social capital,” in which strong community networks of social support and informal social control contribute to reducing occurrences of crime. Restorative justice emphasizes effective practices for dealing with crime, based on consensual, interactive, and participatory approaches; this perspective stands in contrast to the more familiar adversarial models of justice, based on retribution and punishment, that make up the overwhelming part of criminal justice system practice.
Proponents of restorative justice note that punishment-centered models of crime control are both ineffective and costly, both in human and resource terms. Prisons are wildly expensive systems for containing and managing people who have been targeted for criminalization. Even more disturbingly, incarceration has long been shown to offer few positive or constructive outcomes for those who are so punished. Advocates of restorative justice note that harsh prison sentences, at most, provide victims of crime with a sense of revenge or vindication. Punishment models do little to assist or support victims who may have been multiply impacted by a criminal event or events. Put simply, systems oriented primarily toward punishing offenders offer little to those who have been victimized by crime.
Restorative justice is concerned with rebuilding relationships after an offense, rather than driving a wedge between offenders and the community, such as occurs within criminal justice systems in capitalist liberal democracies. Restorative justice allows victims, offenders, and the community to address the harms done by crime, so that the community, rather than being further torn apart and pitted against itself, can be repaired. Rather than imposing decisions about winners and losers in an adversarial system, restorative justice seeks to facilitate dialogue among those affected by an incident. All parties with a stake in the offense come together to deal collectively with it.
Restorative justice acts on a range of general principles. First is the view that both victim and the community have been harmed by an offender’s actions, and this damage causes a disequilibrium that must be addressed to restore relations, lest more social harm be done. Counter to traditional criminal justice system approaches, offenders as well as victims and the community are seen as having a stake in a successful outcome of this process. Second, those who have offended have some obligation to address the harm they have caused. Third, restorative justice emphasizes the healing of both victim and offender. Victims need information, understanding, safety, and social support. Unlike in the standard criminal justice system, offenders’ needs are also addressed, including social security, health care, possibly treatment for addictions, and counseling.
Whereas conventional criminal justice focuses on the offense to the state by individuals and does little to deal with the consequences to the community and its members, restorative justice emphasizes rebuilding community trust and “social capital” as means to defend against future conflicts and offenses. As Brennan (2003, p. 2008) suggests, “Restorative justice builds on social capital because it decentralizes the offense from merely the act of an offender breaking the law, to a breach in a community’s trust in its members. This in turn allows the community along with the offender and victim to collectively look for a resolution.”
One particular approach to restorative justice is drawn from the practice of indigenous sentencing circles. Within these healing circles, a broad range of community members are involved in the justice process to reintegrate offenders into the community, rather than pursuing the segregation model of the penal approach. Unlike adversarial processes as are practiced within the court system, sentencing circles seek solutions to the original conflict and possible underlying causes while working cooperatively to repair relationships harmed by the criminal act. Sentencing circles have been adopted within the criminal justice system in Canada as one option available to members of indigenous communities.
Peace-making criminology argues that the idea of making war on crime needs to be replaced with the idea of making peace on crime. Bracewell identifies the motivating themes of peace-making criminology as follows: “(1) connectedness to each other and to our environment and the need for reconciliation; (2) caring for each other in a nurturing way as a primary objective in corrections; and (3) mindfulness, meaning the cultivation of inner peace” (Lanier & Henry, 2004, p. 330). This approach emphasizes the responsibilities that members of society have as active participants in maintaining and restoring positive social relations. Like other versions of restorative justice, it calls upon community members to address issues of crime and community health and safety directly through their own involvement rather than deferring to the power of instituted authorities.
Restorative justice is no utopian wish. In fact, there have been attempts to employ this approach within several jurisdictions as a means to deal with even extremely violent crimes. Research suggests that restorative justice shows clear effectiveness, in terms of both offender accountability and victim healing.
Instead of escalating the violence in an already violent society by responding to violence and conflict with state-sanctioned violence and conflict, through police and penal actions, society needs to de-escalate violence. With this approach, practices of conciliation, mediation, and dispute settlement become preferable options. Peace-making criminologists, including anarchist-influenced Hal Pepinsky, argue that reducing violence requires people’s direct involvement in democratic practices. By this, Pepinsky means “a genuine participation by all in life decisions that is only achievable in a decentralized, nonhierarchical social structure.”
Providing community support for offenders benefits all in the community and injects fairness into the practice of justice. Restorative justice offers the prospect of escaping the “zero-sum game” of the traditional criminal justice system, whereby what is said to benefit victims must necessarily hurt offenders. In restorative justice, victim, community, and offender all stand to gain in their own ways.
- Brennan, L. (2003). Restoring the justice in criminal justice. Detroit: Wayne State University, Department of Interdisciplinary Studies.
- Lanier, M., & Henry, S. (2004). Essential criminology. Boulder, CO: Westview Press
- O’Grady, W. (2007). Crime in Canadian context: Debates and controversies. Don Mills: Oxford University Press.
- Parker, L. (2009, May 22). Schools. Retrieved May 5, 2010, from http://www.restorativejustice.org/programme-place/02practiceissues/schools-1
- How we can help. (2007). Retrieved from http://www.transformingconflict.org/content/how-we-can-help
- Umbreit, M., Coates, R., Vos, B., & Brown, K. (2002). Victim offender dialogue in crimes ofsevere violence: A multi-site study of programs in Texas and Ohio. Minneapolis: Center for Restorative Justice, University of Minnesota.