Restorative Justice: A different path to reconciliation

In September 2022, the Department of Justice announced it would award close to $57 million to support criminal justice reform and advance racial equity in the U.S. criminal justice system. The funding is designed to “promote fairness in the nation’s courts and corrections systems and align criminal justice practices with the latest science.” (source)

Some of that “latest science” promotes a wider use of Restorative Justice, which research supports having higher satisfaction and lower recidivism rates (source) for crime victims and offenders who work through this alternative criminal justice model. 

Restorative Justice focuses on reconciliation instead of punishment to promote better outcomes for all those affected by a crime. The process facilitates meaningful conversations designed to promote healing, closure and even understanding among all involved parties. Restorative practices establish a safe space for both victims and offenders to acknowledge their experience of the crime or conflict. Conversation may take place in a prosecutor’s office, court or meeting room as well as schools, juvenile facilities and other social services settings. These conversations provide opportunities for healing and peacemaking through dialogue and to work toward meaningful reconciliation. 

For restorative justice to be effective, iit requires voluntary participation of the victim(s), the offender(s) and their community. It is the expectation that the offender(s) will accept responsibility for their role in the conflict and acknowledge the harm they have caused. Victims must also agree to participate, and accept the opportunity to recount all ways they have been affected by the crime. It falls to the community to provide support, offer input, and help the offender return to the community. Understanding and responding to the needs of everyone affected by the crime is essential for determining the end goals. 

In a report by Lindsey Pointer, Ph.D., Associate Director, National Center on Restorative Justice, Assistant Professor, Center for Justice Reform, Vermont Law School housed on the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) website (source), Dr Pointer reflects on the most common needs expressed by students working through a restorative justice exercise:

“What we glean from this exercise is that there are some common human needs experienced in the wake of crime—needs for safety, understanding, validation, information, apology, and repair. These are needs that so often go completely unmet by our mainstream punitive justice responses, which are concerned primarily with assigning guilt and doling out punishments.”

Communities and victims of crime benefit from the restorative justice process as it seeks to restore broken relationships through direct dialogue between the victim, offender, and affected community members. Offenders benefit from a valuing of empathy and understanding over blame, shame and punishment, creating space for honest self-reflection. By attempting to repair the harm done instead of punishing or ignoring it, the power of restorative justice lies in its ability to prevent repeating negative behaviors and lessen future conflict.

In a November article housed on the What’s Next Magazine site, Ryan Moser presents himself as one kind of offender on whom restorative justice could have a positive impact:  

“I’ve met many prisoners who, like me, are remorseful, seek help, and admit our mistakes. We feel an obligation to answer for our crimes, and to make amends to the people we have harmed; unfortunately in today’s punitive climate, we aren’t afforded that opportunity. Under the restorative justice model, various alternatives could include supervised probation, substance abuse counseling, and paid restitution after conveying apologies and accountability.” (source)

The process typically begins with an Inquiry which allows all the parties involved to identify their perspectives, their needs and their interests. After this step is complete, both victims and perpetrators are encouraged to explore available options for Reparation, finding an agreement that addresses all parties’ needs. Agreeable outcomes might include an apology, financial reimbursement from the perpetrator to the victim, community service, and any number of forms of material and emotional support and assistance. A final Resolution stage strives to facilitate change. During this last phase, trained facilitators help individuals implement plans designed to reduce tensions and promote positive changes that have lasting impacts for both sides.

In implementing practices such as victim-offender mediation or a circle process that includes family and affected members of the community, restorative justice invites all parties involved to take part in formulating and delivering justice. This encourages individuals to repair relationships as well as make restitution for wrongdoings, ultimately creating a more meaningful approach and holistic outcome than traditional court proceedings. Satisfactory reconciliation is not the sole measure of success. Providing offenders, victims and the affected community with a safe space to express their thoughts, feelings and perspectives can be a small but important part of a more complex judicial process.

“If a harmer comes out of a conference fully understanding the impact of their crime and never wanting to commit an offense to harm someone again, that’s a huge achievement. And if a victim finishes a conference feeling that they’ve had answers to the questions they asked and feel, that again is a huge success.” (source)

As in traditional justice systems, victim advocates continue to play a key role in restorative justice systems, advocating for the voice and needs of those impacted by crime. In this sytem, they will act as impartial mediators between victims and offenders as well as guiding victims through the challenging processes of social or psychological healing. Regardless of the process or system, victim advocates are valued and essential for ensuring victims feel safe, are heard, and are able to navigate their way through the challenging stages of recovery after a crime.