Restorative justice is most accurately described as a model for “doing justice” by repairing the harm of crime. To the greatest extent possible, restorative intervention seeks to heal the wounds crime and conflict cause to victims, communities, families, and relationships. This approach provides a clear alternative to now-dominant retributive justice models that seek essentially to achieve “just deserts” by punishing offenders, but restorative justice is not simply a model of offender rehabilitation, or an easy community-based alternative to punishment.
II. Background: A Brief History of Restorative Justice
Restorative justice is a “new” way of responding to crime and harm based on ancient practices. Criminal justice policy in much of the modern world, and in the United States in particular, views punishment as a primary response to crime. For advocates of restorative justice, however, crime is more than simply lawbreaking; rather, crime harms individual victims, communities, offenders, and relationships. “Justice,” therefore, cannot be achieved simply by punishing the offender, or even by only providing treatment and services. Justice must focus on repairing the harm crime causes, while ensuring accountability to those harmed by crime rather than to the state alone.
This research paper first provides a definition of restorative justice and discusses the differences and similarities between restorative and other models of justice. It then describes core value–based principles that should guide restorative intervention and policy development and discusses the varieties of restorative practice. In addition, research is summarized that generally demonstrates the effectiveness and adaptability of restorative justice. Following this is a discussion of how these principles relate to several criminological and social science theories that may help to explain how and why restorative practice “works” when it does. Finally, weaknesses of current policy and its implementation and threats or challenges to broader continuing application of restorative justice strategies are considered.
II. Background: A Brief History of Restorative Justice
If asked to define “justice,” most Americans use words such as fairness, similar or equal treatment, absence of discrimination, enlightenment, due process, and equal opportunity. Yet, when asked what is meant when someone has been “brought to justice,” Americans inevitably think first of punishment—often severe punishment—that must serve as retribution for wrongdoing. People know that justice is a larger concept than punishment, yet are mostly aware of a very limited set of choices about what justice means in response to crime.
A. Punishment, Settlement, and Exchange in Human History
Although most people are clearly taught, or socialized, to believe in the moral “rightness” of retribution, and to some degree in its effectiveness, there is no evidence to suggest that human beings are innately punitive. Indeed, most speculation is that in early human communal societies, when someone was harmed by another person(s), the response was typically some form of group dialogue. This deliberation included consideration of responsibility for the act, discussion of the nature of the harm, and consideration of “accountability” based on obligations for the offender (and often his or her family) to make amends to those harmed.
These so-called ancephalous (or headless) societies also preferred restitution and other reparative responses to crime that sought to restore community peace and harmony as an alternative to “blood feuds,” which generally had devastating consequences for community life. Moreover, the most highly developed ancient states—those in Egypt, Babylon, China, Persia, and Greece, as well as Hebrew and Anglo- Saxon societies—devised formal codes that specified monetary amounts, as well as goods and services, to be paid as restitution and offered as a means of “repairing the harm” caused by specific actions that would today be considered as crimes, including even serious and violent offenses.
In contrast to the view that punishment is an innately human trait, it seems more likely that humans are “hardwired” for reciprocity and social exchange. When people use the phrase “I owe you one,” or “You owe me one,” it generally implies that there is an expectation to repay a debt or good deed that can “make things right” in a different way from individual revenge. While revenge may be part of the human condition, it may be more accurate to say that it was collective state punishment, rather than restorative responses that were “invented” (for Anglo-European cultures, at least) during the Middle Ages. Retributive punishment is therefore a more recent human “innovation” that essentially formalized the response to community and individual conflict resolution by designating theft and other offenses as “crimes” against the king (or the state). Although more commonly employed in some eras and cultures (e.g., forms of restorative justice never disappeared in many indigenous societies), reparation and informal settlement processes, as well as formal and informal restitution and other reparative sanctions (e.g., community service), have nonetheless persisted at some level alongside retributive punishment throughout Western history.
B. Punishment, Justice, and Restoration Today
Restorative justice advocates in the modern world, and in the United States in particular, are nonetheless up against a perception of “justice” as an offender “taking the punishment.” This narrow retributive perception of justice unfortunately continues to justify and support what much of the modern world increasingly recognizes as a uniquely American addiction to punishment. To a large extent, however, what has been a three-decade-long U.S. geometric increase in imprisonment is more accurately a function of policymaker addiction, which has in the past decade ushered in an era recently described as a condition of “mass incarceration.” This state of affairs permeates the existence and defines the future of affected populations, notably in this case African American males. Indeed, public opinion polls continue to suggest that, when given alternatives in specific case scenarios, most citizens appear to be less punitive than politicians and the legislation they develop. Specifically, for the vast majority of crimes, Americans responding to citizen surveys choose the option of a community-based alternative sanction that might, in some research, include restitution, community service, apologies, and victim–offender meetings. While by no means soft on crime, restorative justice appears to fit well into this growing movement for reform, and with the emerging dissatisfaction with expanded punishment as the primary response.