Restorative Justice

V. Stakeholders: Who, What, and Where?

The problem of crime is of course much larger and more complex than the problem of the offender. Yet, criminal justice policy is in essence an offender-driven response, narrowly focused on arresting and processing lawbreakers. The principle of stakeholder involvement places a priority on engaging those most affected by crime—victim, community, and offender—in the justice process, and on the quality of this engagement. It also suggests an emphasis on the needs of key stakeholders and their obligations. Such needs are often different for each individual participant in the justice process and may vary in unpredictable ways—hence, the need for a meaningful, respectful engagement process that presumes multiple choices based on research and practice. Based on research and practice experience, it is possible, however, to describe general needs that have become quite common for each stakeholder in a crime or conflict.

A. Victim Needs

Many victims say that they often become most angry with the criminal justice system itself—with its delays, reluctance to share information, and often disrespectful treatment. Victims need first of all to be provided with information about their cases. They also may want, and demand, their “day in court” and to participate in their case, but many say that the adversarial process itself is a source of great trauma on some occasions. Indeed, as Judith Herman (2000) puts it, “If you set out to create a system to generate post-traumatic stress, you couldn’t do better than a court of law.” Thus, victims often prefer an informal process where their views count, such as the process offered by a range of restorative justice practices. Victims also want more information about the processing and outcome of their cases, answers to their questions (e.g., about why they were chosen by the offender), “truth telling,” and vindication. Such vindication has nothing to do with “vindictiveness,” and the latter term, or terms such as “angry victims,” are often insulting to those harmed by crime. Rather, vindication is often about the need for the offender to express—to the victim and others—responsibility for the crime, and to make clear to everyone (and remove doubts that some victims have) that the crime was (if this is true) not a deliberate act by the offender toward this victim, and not the result of provocation or negligence on the victim’s part.

While all of us are likely to be angry when someone harms us, victim advocate Mary Achilles (Achilles & Zehr, 2001) notes that victim rage and demand for severe punishment are often a result of a lack of choices:

Indeed, if the choice behind “Door Number 1” is letting the offender off with no consequences, victims are unlikely to choose that. If “Door Number 2” is sending him to counseling or a wilderness program, the victim may approve of that but ask, “What’s in it for me—what about my needs as a victim?” When a prosecutor or other court official suggests jail time, on the other hand, it doesn’t take a vindictive or punitive person to choose “Door Number 3.” The lesson for restorative justice advocates, then, is to listen to victims and make new choices available that acknowledge the complexity of victims’ needs.

B. Offender Needs

Traditionally, offender needs when addressed at all in a nonpunitive way have focused primarily on treatment. While most citizens—including those who have been victims—support rehabilitation for offenders, the legitimate portion of public anger about the criminal justice system is based on the view that most offenders are not held accountable. Most offenders are never incarcerated, and thus are perceived as receiving a “slap on the wrist.” Moreover, serving time—taking one’s punishment—is in no real way related to being accountable, or taking responsibility for, the harm an offender causes to his or her victims (and in some cases, it may even encourage anger toward the victim). Greater understanding by the public and by victims, as well as justice itself, therefore requires that offenders be meaningfully held accountable for what they have done.

Rather than simply “taking their punishment” or completing treatment, offenders then need the opportunity to take responsibility for the harm caused by their behavior to victims. They need to take action to repair the harm and to have a voice in the decision-making process about how this is accomplished. Facing their victim(s) in a restorative justice process provides a rare opportunity to also develop empathy and remorse—two factors strongly related to a reduced probability of reoffending—while also having input into the process. Offenders then take action to repair harm by making amends through apologies, community or victim service, restitution, and so on. Offenders also need support for reintegration into their communities. Juvenile offenders in particular need opportunities to build a range of assets, skills, and competencies, and they need an opportunity to practice and demonstrate these. Young offenders need also to develop positive relationships with prosocial adults.

C. Community Needs

John McKnight, in his book The Careless Society: Community and Its Counterfeits (1995), makes a convincing argument that Americans have in recent decades entrusted much of their traditional responsibility for raising children, helping the elderly, improving schools, and participating in civic life to experts. In doing so, Americans have handed over input into community life to agencies focused on problems and deficits rather than assets that might enhance public life:

Communities are also clearly imperfect. Yet, children grow up in communities, and not, if they are lucky, in service and juvenile justice programs. McKnight (1995), Robert Putnam (2000), and others who write about the decline in civic life and in the commitment to and reliance on neighbors and civic organizations, have in the past decade begun articulating the need to rebuild social capital as the “glue” that holds community life together.

Communities with high levels of connectedness or social capital typically have low crime rates because, as sociologist John Braithwaite (1989) suggests, in these communities, people “don’t mind their own business.” These are places active in maintaining informal social control and social support, especially for the young. Yet, as David Moore reminds us, the increasing reliance on the state, and especially on criminal justice and social service agencies, has in recent years “deprived people of opportunities to practice skills of apology and forgiveness, or reconciliation, restitution, and reparation . . . [and] appears to have deprived civil society of opportunities to learn important political and social skills” (Moore & McDonald, 2000, p. 30). As the state has taken on more responsibility for raising children, Americans have lost some of the basic wisdom and much of the competencies their parents and grandparents had (as well as their extended networks of support), and must literally relearn and practice these techniques. Rather than the typical focus of the past three decades on further expansion of the reach, responsibilities, and resources of the criminal and juvenile justice systems, restorative principles (especially the third principle described above, which addresses transformation of the community–government relationship) offer opportunities to strengthen and resource communities to allow them to reclaim responsibility for tasks they once performed not perfectly, but often better than criminal justice and social service agencies are capable of doing.

Restorative justice practice can and should therefore be viewed as a tool not simply to help individual victims and offenders, but also to help families, neighbors, schools, churches, networks of activities, and other foundations as communities begin to rekindle basic skills of social support and control that many believe are being lost. Examples of using restorative practice in these ways include cases in which community groups have stepped up to the plate to reclaim some of these responsibilities. In a city in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, a case involving serious vandalism in which a local teenager had ransacked an elaborately designed tree house that was open to and used by neighborhood youth, a group of community members took matters into their own hands, and with no professional help, organized their own neighborhood restorative conference. When police officers, who also ran their own highly effective restorative conferencing program, came to the neighborhood to inform residents that they had scheduled a conference for the youth and all families involved, they were told by several neighbors that one resident (a man whose own son had previously participated in one of the police program’s conferences with his own son) had “already handled the problem.” This community member had acted as a facilitator in a conference held in his own basement with the young perpetrator, his mother, several youth and their families, and other neighborhood residents. The conference resulted in restitution paid by the youth and his mother to rebuild the tree house; community service that involved neighbors working with the youth to repair damages; apologies from the youth and mother; and later, a neighborhood party to which the police officers were also invited.

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