Restorative justice is a growing way of dealing with crime that replaces the centuries-old “crimes against the state” notion with an approach that puts the offender in direct contact with the victim, requiring him or her to take responsibility and make amends for the crime. The needs of the person who was harmed are taken into account as much as possible, and they are involved in dealing with the outcome.
Across the country, restorative justice, especially for juvenile offenders, is gaining support among a growing number of correctional policymakers and practitioners, victim advocates, court officials and law enforcement officials. Already 20 states have introduced and/or passed legislation promoting a restorative juvenile justice system, and 30 other states have restorative justice principles in their mission statements or policy plans. There are individual restorative justice programs in virtually every state, and a growing number of states and local jurisdictions are dramatically changing their criminal and juvenile justice systems to adopt the principles and practices of restorative justice. Restorative justice is now practiced in more than 300 US communities and at more than 1000 locations in Europe.
In restorative justice there is usually dialogue, where all affected people explore one another’s feelings and needs in a safe and respectful environment. A trained neutral third party can help them as they try to reach consensus on how to deal with the aftermath of offending behavior. Family members, friends or others living in the community can have a voice as well.
Holding offenders directly accountable to the people they have violated,
restores the emotional and material losses of victims and provides a range of opportunities for dialogue, negotiation and problem-solving. This can lead to a greater sense of community safety, conflict resolution and closure for all involved.
While denouncing criminal behavior, restorative justice emphasizes the need to treat offenders with respect and to reintegrate them into the larger community in ways that can lead to lawful behavior. Restorative justice encourages the entire community to be involved in holding the offender accountable and promoting a healing response to the needs of both victims and offenders.
Restorative justice can be expressed through a wide range of policies and practices directed toward offenders and crime victims, including: victim support and advocacy, restitution, community service, victim impact panels, victim-offender mediation, circle sentencing, family group conferencing, community boards that meet with offenders to determine appropriate sanctions, victim empathy classes for offenders and community policing.
Victim-offender mediations are conducted by trained mediators who are sensitive to the needs of victims and their families. In some cases the community provides work for offenders so they will be able to pay restitution to victims.
While some Americans continue to advocate greater retribution and harsher penalties for youthful offenders, others believe in the importance of rehabilitating criminals and preventing further crime. Today, victims of crime feel increasingly frustrated and alienated by the current justice system, while increasingly harsh punishments have failed to change criminal behavior.
The initial conceptualization of restorative justice was first clearly articulated by Howard Zehr in the late 1970s. By 1990, an international conference funded by NATO was convened in Italy to examine the growing interest in restorative justice throughout the world. Academicians and practitioners from a wide range of countries presented papers related to its development and impact. The Council of Europe endorsed restorative justice through victim-offender mediation in 1999, and a subcommittee of the UN has also been examining the concept.
In the summer of 1994, after many years of little interest, if not skepticism, the American Bar Association fully endorsed the practice of victim-offender mediation and recommended its development in courts throughout the country. Also, a growing number of victim-support organizations are actively participating in the restorative justice movement.
A cross-national study of victim-offender mediation in four states, four Canadian provinces and two cities of England found high levels of victim and offender satisfaction with the mediation process and outcome. Victims who met the juvenile offender were significantly more likely to have been satisfied with how the justice system handled their case than similar victims who did not participate in mediation. They also were significantly less fearful of being re-victimized after the mediation session. Offenders in mediation were significantly more likely to successfully complete restitution than were similar offenders who did not meet their victim.
A large study of nearly 1300 juvenile offenders found a 32 percent reduction in recidivism among those who participated in a mediation session with their victim. Many recent studies are also finding significant and meaningful reductions in recidivism rates.
The U.S. Education Department’s newly released guidelines for school discipline call for an end to punitive punishment, and this should continue to fuel the movement.
Mariame Kaba, founding director of Project NIA, a Chicago-based nonprofit that supports youth involved in the criminal justice system, with a mission to eradicate the incarceration of minors, says:
We began our work of interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline in our community by setting up a ‘peace room’ at a local school. We brought in volunteers who were trained in restorative justice and encouraged school administrators and teachers to send young people to the peace room, as opposed to suspending them from school or arresting them.
I want Chicago schools to train teachers in how to work with young people in non-punitive ways. I would also love for there not to be any police officers in the schools any more. Chicago Public Schools has done a great job of taking zero tolerance out of the discipline code, but they haven’t funded the necessary initiatives. We also need to try to end the criminalization of youth of color.