What is restorative justice?
Restorative Justice or RJ is an alternative approach to the problem of crime in our society. Crime is viewed as an act that causes harm. RJ looks for constructive solutions to repair the damage caused by the crime and to promote healing in the lives of the victim, the offender, and the community.
How does Restorative Justice differ from our present system of criminal justice?
Our present system defines crime as an offense against the state and its laws. Rather than focusing on solutions, it focuses on determination of guilt and the administration of punishment. As such, it is often referred to as Retributive Justice. The following chart outlines some of the differences between the two approaches:
|Retributive Justice||Restorative Justice|
|– crime defined as a violation of the state and its rules||– crime defined as a violation of people and relationships|
|– state and offender have primary roles||– victim and offender are primary|
|– state officials and legal professionals are the key players in an adversarial process||– individuals involved in the crime and their community are central to a problem-solving process|
|– offender and victim are kept separate||– offender and victim have an option for facilitated communication|
|– crime is seen as an isolated incident||– crime is viewed in a holistic context: social, psychological, economic and spiritual|
|– offender is a passive recipient of state decided and administered punishment||– offender has a role in solution|
|– victim is largely left out of a state-led procedure||– victim’s story is heard and is a primary legal part of the healing process|
|– needs of the victim, offender ignored||– needs of the victim, offender paramount|
What types of Restorative Justice processes are going on today?
RJ is a philosophical framework and as such has provided a foundation for a variety of programs, which are in existence all around the world. There are Sentencing Circles, Healing Circles, Victim-Offender Mediation, Diversion Programs and the like. Family group conferencing is a program in New Zealand to deal with crimes committed by youth. It is part of a youth justice system which encourages the police to adopt a “low-key response to juvenile offending whenever possible” (Maxwell and Morris 201). Concerned parties hold a meeting in an informal setting to create a plan to deal with the offense. Those attending typically include the young person who has caused the harm, his or her family members, the victim and his/her support person, a police officer, and the mediator who is an employee of the Department of Social Welfare. If victims do not wish to attend, they can send someone to represent them. Providing the young person admits the offense, the group then proceeds to identify what effects it has had on the victim, why the young person did it, and what needs to be done about it. About 20 per cent of young offenders are dealt with in this way rather than going through Youth Court. Most of the participants in this process have expressed a high degree of satisfaction with it (Maxwell and Morris 206).
Another RJ initiative is Circles of Support and Accountability or CoSA. This is a program that consists of community volunteers who meet regularly with newly released high-risk sex offenders to provide support in their process of reintegration. CoSA began in 1994 when a man who had completed his sentence for sexual offenses against children was released in Hamilton. Facing rejection by the community, he turned to a Mennonite minister, Harry Nigh, and his church for help. After much discussion, they decided that their community would be safer if this individual was given support and inclusion rather than being isolated. The man did not reoffend and since that time, many CoSA projects have been established in Canada, the US and in the UK. Research has shown that offenders given this type of support have much lower rates of reoffending than those without it. [2, 3, 4]
Is RJ a new way of dealing with crime?
No, these concepts have been around since ancient times. Many RJ programs in place today are derived from traditional indigenous practices. For example, the Community Holistic Circle Healing Program in Hollow Water, Manitoba, deals with cases of serious sexual abuse using traditional methods.  Navajo peacemaker courts are also based on cultural practices. Rather than involving judges, these courts rely on community peacemakers or “naat’aani” who engage all interested parties, that is, family and community members as well as offender and victim, in a collaborative healing process (Yazzie and Zion 144-145).
Western European societies also used restorative justice strategies in the past. In the Middle Ages most crimes were resolved outside of a court system. Church and community leaders assisted offenders and victims in coming up with satisfactory amounts of compensation for damages done. Places of sanctuary were also part of this strategy. Criminals could find refuge in churches or designated manor houses until angry feelings dissipated and solutions could be found (Zehr 99-104).
Does RJ work for victims?
In the Retributive Justice system, victims are largely left out of the process, as it is not focused on restoring the harm done to them, but on deciding on the appropriate level of punishment for the offender. However the needs of victims are many. In his book, Changing Lenses, Howard Zehr describes how being a victim of a violent crime can cause an individual to question their view of the world as a safe, predictable place, as well as create feelings of helplessness, confusion, anger and self-blame (Zehr 21). Unfortunately because the court system is an adversarial one, instead of being validated, their version of events is questioned, and their sense of self-blame is reinforced, leading to what is called “secondary victimization” (Zehr 23).
Victims have found greater satisfaction through a RJ process, in which their story can be heard personally by the one who has caused them harm, reparation is made, and an apology is given. All of this ultimately leads to a sense of closure and the feeling that they have been given an experience of justice (Braithwaite 320-321).
Does RJ work for offenders?
Although there is a tendency to reduce crime to something caused by bad people who do bad actions, studies have shown that in reality the roots of crime are complex and varied. Individuals may commit crimes, not because they necessarily wish to cause harm, but out of a distorted attempt to meet their own needs (Zehr 182). They themselves may have been victimized in some way and not have adequate resources or support to deal with it. For example, a young person who has experienced sexual abuse might resort to using drugs to deal with the pain, which will lead to them committing robberies in order to support their habit.
Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, has said, “Difficult as it is for us to accept, … I believe that every act of violence is also a message that needs to be understood. Violence should not be answered just by greater violence but by real understanding. We must ask: where is the violence coming from?” (Vanier 23-24). If we really wish to reduce crime, it is important to address the factors that have led to it. RJ looks at a crime in the context of the whole of an offender’s life, rather than as an isolated event and takes steps to address his/her needs. Not surprisingly, RJ programs have been shown to significantly reduce the rate of reoffending when compared to existing justice practices.
As criminologist John Braithwaite states, when offenders feel they are being treated fairly, they are more likely to respond positively (Braithwaite 320). A process in which offenders are seen as whole persons, not just the bad things they have done, and addresses their need to take responsibility for their actions; a process in which they are given support to get on a better path, is far more likely to be seen as fair. In many different studies, offender satisfaction with RJ programs has been found to be very high (Braithwaite 328-329).
Videos about Restorative Justice:
What is restorative justice: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sE8TDzlR2tg
Definition of restorative justice: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZJzMTw9UNw
Restorative practices to resolve conflict and build relationships: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcLuVeHlrSs
How can I find out more about Restorative Justice?
Because of the wide variety of RJ programs and the extensive research done on them, there is a wealth of information available, both online and in print. The references below can provide a starting point.
- Wilson, R. J., Picheca, J. E., & Prinzo, M. (2007). “Evaluating the effectiveness of professionally-facilitated volunteerism in the community-based management of high risk sexual offenders: PART TWO—A comparison of recidivism rates”, Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, 46, 327-337.
- Wilson, R. J., Cortoni, F., & McWhinnie, A. J. (2009). “Circles of Support & Accountability: A Canadian national replication of outcome findings”, Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research & Treatment, 21, 412-430.
- For a recent report on the effectiveness of CoSA see the Church Council on Justice and Corrections website: http://ccjc.ca.
- Ross, Rupert (1996). Returning to the Teachings. Toronto: Penguin Books.
- Braithwaite, John. “Does restorative justice work?” A Restorative Justice Reader. Ed. Gerry Johnstone. Portland: Willan Publishing, 2003.
- Maxwell, Gabrielle and Alison Morris. “Restorative justice in New Zealand: family group conferences as a case study.” A Restorative Justice Reader. Ed. Gerry Johnstone. Portland: Willan Publishing, 2003.
- Vanier, Jean. Becoming Human. Toronto: House of Anansi Press Inc, 1998.
- Yazzie, Robert and James W. Zion. “Navaho restorative justice: the law of equality and justice.” A Restorative Justice Reader. Ed. Gerry Johnstone. Portland: Willan Publishing, 2003.
- Zehr, Howard. Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice. Waterloo: Herald Press, 1995.