Restorative Justice

VIII. How and Why Does It Work? Better Theory for Better Practice

Despite this research progress and better outcomes for restorative programs relative to court and similar alternatives, there remains relatively little insight into why these programs appear to produce positive effects. Indeed, it is a legitimate question, whether it is a restorative justice process or some other set of intervention characteristics that accounts for the success of these practices. What is most needed at this time are clear and coherent theories that are consistent with restorative principles and assumptions that can account for why restorative justice works when it does, and how it works. Testing various theories may also reveal what aspects of restorative process and outcomes best explain why these practices reduce recidivism, improve victim outcomes, and seem to strengthen informal social control and social support.

Theories are not just for academics. Indeed, the best policies and practice are often guided by theories of change: in offenders, victims, other stakeholders, and communities. Theories should also guide practice and replication of successful projects by helping practitioners adapt general principles to diverse cultural and structural environments. As a collective encounter, restorative justice practice is naturally linked to a variety of social theories in criminology, sociology, psychology, and other disciplines.

Without a doubt, the most widely recognized theory associated with restorative justice is reintegrative shaming theory (RST). This theory emerged from sociologist John Braithwaite’s (1989) comparative international work contrasting cultures and societies that tended to have low versus high crime rates. While Braithwaite concluded that generally low-crime cultures are those in which community members “do not mind their own business,” he also emphasized the importance of informal sanctioning processes in which community members clearly denounced the crime or harmful act while also generally continuing to support the offender as a community member. This process, which he labeled “reintegrative shaming” (as the opposite of “disintegrative shaming”), has become the theory most associated internationally with the restorative justice process. While a powerful theory, reintegrative shaming practice does not receive absolute support among restorative justice advocates, many of whom prefer the emphasis on empathy and support rather than shame. In any case, even those who do use RST consistently now recognize it as only one of many theories that help to explain the impact of restorative justice.

In addition, a number of other theories appear to align directly with core values and principles of restorative justice, while at the same time providing practitioners with important immediate and intermediate outcomes that link practice with long-term impacts and help to explain the success or failures of restorative interventions. Based on their fieldwork using interviews with staff and participants in restorative conferencing programs in several states and local communities, Bazemore and Schiff (2004) documented “grounded theories” in common use in restorative practice. These researchers also demonstrated how these theories tend to direct practice toward certain process approaches, and toward a focus on initial and intermediate outcomes believed to lead to positive long-term results (e.g., reduced recidivism, long-term victim healing). These theories and associated outcomes are discussed below as they relate to one of the three core principles of restorative justice.

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