A. Misunderstanding Restorative Justice
Restorative justice is not a single program, practice, or process. As indicated by the examples above—especially those involving serious and violent murders and reconciliation following genocide—it is also not an intervention meant only as an alternative response to minor crime, juvenile crime, or other misbehavior. And it is not limited to use in, or as an alternative to, one part of the criminal or juvenile justice process. Indeed, as illustrated in the last case above, restorative justice may occur spontaneously and completely outside and independent of any formal criminal justice context.
Restorative justice does not assume that the victim will or should forgive the offender. Although some victims— including those harmed by some of the most horrific crimes mentioned in the previous examples—choose in their own way and in their own time frame to forgive the offenders that harmed them, a successful restorative intervention does not presume either forgiveness or reconciliation. Restorative justice is also not a “soft” option for offenders (many in fact view restorative justice as more demanding than traditional punishments), and restorative proponents do not suggest that more use of restorative justice implies that there is no need for secure facilities. Finally, restorative justice is not focused only on the offender—or on reducing recidivism—even though it has been effective in doing so. It is focused first on the needs of those victimized by crime and their families, and on the needs of other true “stakeholders” in crime and conflict: offenders and their families, communities, and supporters of offender and victim.
B. Defining Restorative Justice
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.
Restorative justice is, however, generally compatible with many goals and assumptions of other approaches to criminal justice including crime control, rehabilitation, and libertarian/due process models. Restorative justice practices support rehabilitation and treatment, though this is not their only or primary goal, and according to research, restorative programs have been effective in reducing recidivism; restorative justice is an evidence-based practice. Advocates of restorative justice are also strong in their support of due process and limits on state intervention, and do not advocate restorative processes for offenders who have not admitted responsibility for the crime, or been found guilty in a fair adjudicatory process.
Regarding crime control, restorative justice advocates would support prevention efforts as well as public safety goals. But they would also argue that a society more focused on restorative practices at a community level (e.g., in schools, families) would be a safer society. Restorative justice proponents also recognize the need for secure facilities, and even incapacitation, for violent predatory offenders. Like many other critics of U.S. criminal justice policy, however, restorative justice proponents would argue that the incarceration binge of the past decade has resulted in more harm than good—for example, communities that are less safe, victims who have not healed, and offenders who are perhaps even more violent.
Restorative justice is perhaps most distinctive in its way of determining/measuring how much “justice” has been achieved in a given response to crime. Specifically, restorative justice advocates would gauge the success of any response to crime by attention to the extent to which harm is repaired, rather than the degree to which “just deserts,” or fair punishment, is delivered.