Restorative Justice

VI. Restorative Justice Practice

A. Responding to Harm Through Restorative Practice

Restorative justice does not require a program or a formal process. Indeed, some of the best examples of restorative justice occur serendipitously. The previously mentioned case of neighbors who reached out to the Jewish victims of skinhead hate crimes in a predominately white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant neighborhood in a Philadelphia suburb was a restorative response that had no connection to a program, nor were the Denver faith community groups who provided assistance and support for victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, in town for the Timothy McVeigh trial, employed by a restorative program. In both cases, however, much restorative healing took place that did not require a formal program.

Yet, more organized, ongoing restorative practice can be divided into two primary programmatic categories:

  1. Restorative decision-making or “conferencing” models— Designed to enable victims, offenders, their supporters, and affected community members to have maximum input into a plan to repair harm, these processes can assume many variations within four general structural models: (1) family group conferences, (2) victim– offender mediation/dialogue, (3) neighborhood accountability boards, and (4) peacemaking circles, all of which share a focus on decision making that seeks to maximize stakeholder involvement.
  2. Restorative sanctions or obligations—These include restitution, community service, apologies, victim service, behavioral agreements, and other efforts to make amends for harm caused by one’s offense. Restorative obligations represent the concrete, behavioral aspect of holding offenders accountable by “righting the wrong,” which provides evidence to the community and victim that the offender has earned redemption.

B. A Restorative Process and Outcome

Regarding decision-making processes, Howard Zehr (1990) notes that in the current criminal justice process, three questions are asked: Who did it, what laws were broken, and how will the offender be punished. The essence of a restorative process—focused on repairing the harm—is captured in three different questions: What is the harm, what needs to be done to repair it, and who is responsible for this repair.

To conduct a restorative process, stakeholders typically rely on one of the four general nonadversarial decision-making models listed above. This group of practices has in common a process whereby offender(s), victim(s)/victim rep(s), a facilitator, and other community members sit in a nonadversarial, face-to-face, informal meeting to consider the impact of a crime or harm on victims and communities and try to develop a plan to repair this harm that meets the needs of those most affected. Other common elements include adhering to a set of values and core principles, including different points of view, giving voice to various stakeholders, ensuring honest communication, respectfully acknowledging victims, expressing emotion, considering stakeholder needs, accountability, empathy and understanding, and creative problem solving.

The second category, restorative obligations, covers typical immediate products of the process that expect (and help) offenders to “make amends” for the crime or harm and demonstrate accountability through restitution, community service, apologies, victim service, behavioral agreements, and other means. While some would argue that a court order for restitution or service is generally more restorative than a traditional punitive sentence, most restorative justice advocates strongly prefer that these obligations come as directly as possible from the stakeholders themselves. Indeed, many regard the process itself as the essence of restorative justice, and some theoretical perspectives view the restorative dialogue as the fundamental means of healing in restorative practice, regardless of outcome.

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