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Justice Systems
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Restorative Justice

What is Restorative Justice?
When is Restorative Justice Used?
The Opportunities and Risks
Restorative Justice and Parallel Justice
Additional Resources

What is Restorative Justice?

One of the more promising trends in crime victim services has been the advent of "restorative justice," an adjunct to traditional justice systems that can offer a more inclusive and personal approach to addressing trauma and violent victimization.

Restorative justice is an umbrella term encompassing a wide range of programs and approaches. In general, restorative justice proponents seek a holistic, integrated sense of justice and healing for victims, as well as personal accountability from offenders. For some, the concept of restorative justice extends to the broader communities affected, the idea being that healing and justice are interconnected for everyone.

Advocates of restorative justice do not dispute the need to sanction or punish offenders; rather, they maintain that punishment alone may not be sufficient for victims' healing and justice.

Conventional justice systems (sometimes referred to as "retributive justice") ask three basic questions:

  • What laws have been broken?
  • Who broke the laws?
  • How shall the lawbreaker be punished?
The fundamental questions of restorative justice, on the other hand, are:
  • Who has been harmed?
  • How can these harms be addressed or repaired?
  • Who should address or repair the harms?
Too often, victims feel excluded from the traditional adjudication process. Many victims report feeling that the criminal justice process focuses on the state itself as the injured party, as though victimization is not personal. But violent trauma survivors know that the effects of victimization are deeply personal, and many have found that restorative justice can provide them with a more personal sense of healing and justice.

When is Restorative Justice Used?

Several states offer some level of restorative justice programming through their Department of Corrections' Victim Services Office. Corrections-based programs may include victim impact panels, through which victims-accompanied by victim advocates-visit prisons to describe the effects of violent crime on their lives to groups of offenders (though not to the particular offenders who perpetrated crimes against them), and victim-offender mediation (VOM) (sometimes referred to as "victim-offender dialogue"), whereby victims speak directly with their offenders, with a trained facilitator present.

Victim participation in restorative justice is always completely voluntary and, with victim-offender mediation, either victims or offenders can stop the preparation or dialogue process at any time. Participation in VOM does not affect an offender's status (e.g. post-incarceration parole or probation determinations, sentencing guidelines, victim compensation, restitution, etc.). Also, most programs do not accept cases that are in an appeals process because of eligibility rules requiring offenders to accept responsibility for the crime.

Victim offender dialogues are applied both in violent crime cases and in some non-violent (e.g. property crime) cases. However, programs available to violent crime victims should be distinguished from those mediation services for property and other crimes, particularly those designed for juvenile offenders and their victims. For cases involving juvenile offenders, courts may take restorative justice-related programs into account during the pre-adjudication phase in order to provide young offenders with a chance to learn from their crime and its effects on individuals and the community, and to make restitution to those who have been impacted. In addition to VOM, restorative justice programs for juvenile offenders at the pre-adjudication stage may include family group conferencing and circle sentencing.

Note also that VOM in violent crime cases typically can occur only after offenders are convicted and incarcerated, and that many victims do not meet with their offenders until years after incarceration begins. In fact, it is not uncommon for VOM to take place 10 or more years after the crime, and the length of the process can vary widely from case to case.

Because some states have not integrated restorative justice practices into their traditional judicial systems, victims may need to take the initiative to seek a third party (e.g. service provider or individual mediator) if they are interested in pursuing restorative justice. Victims should not assume that they will learn about restorative justice through their normal workings with law enforcement and state attorneys' offices. Interested victims can start by contacting the state Victim Services Office (usually through the Department of Corrections) for information about available and suitable programs.

The Opportunities and Risks

The concept of restorative justice, when approached with care and sensitivity to victims' needs, presents an undeniable opportunity for healing and justice. However, it is also very important to understand that it can present potentially very serious risks for victim re-traumatization and that the goals of one restorative justice program or practitioner may differ from another. For example, some programs operate on the premise of "balanced" justice for victims and offenders, while others maintain that the needs of victims are supreme, no matter the circumstances and without specific regard for offenders' needs. When considering restorative justice, victims should consider speaking in detail with potential practitioners about their individual needs, goals, and concerns. Each restorative justice approach is as unique as each victim and offender - there is no one-size-fits-all course of action.

Victims can obtain videos of actual restorative justice programs in action, which can help in deciding whether restorative justice is right for them. Videos can be purchased from the Victim Offender Mediation Association Videography and the Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota.

In any case, since restorative justice often involves the participation of or interaction with offenders, victims must be aware of the risks for re-traumatization and weigh the potential benefits against the potential hazards.

Restorative Justice and Parallel Justice

Just as certain traditional justice practices can leave victims at risk for re-victimization through exclusion and insensitivity, some experts argue that restorative justice also can pose excessive risks of re-traumatization for victims if practiced without a sufficiently "victim-centered" (i.e. holding as paramount the needs of victims) focus. The field of restorative justice has attracted some practitioners who emphasize the power of "reconciliation," "forgiveness," or "peacemaking" between victims and offenders. Some survivors agree with this philosophy, while others find it unsupportive or even offensive.

"Very often, restorative justice not only reflects offender needs-making amends, and changing and rehabilitating offenders-but is driven by such needs."

This and other factors have led to the rise of "parallel justice," many advocates of which seek an institutionalized set of victim-centered responses to crime that ensure victims' safety, healing, and access to resources at every stage of the criminal justice process.

By voicing their concerns, victims have helped to define more victim-centered restorative justice practices. Survivors should consider carefully whether the particular restorative justice program they may pursue is adequately victim-centered and whether the program maintains that offenders be held personally accountable for their crimes (in addition to and distinct from being merely punished).

At its best, restorative justice is both victim-centered and sensitive to the needs of offenders who are willing to accept responsibility for their actions and who themselves want to heal.

Content for this web page was developed in collaboration with Jon Wilson, Founder and Director of Just Alternatives, a nonprofit organization committed to the advancement of promising practices in justice and corrections. Wilson is a specialist in victim-centered restorative justice practices in crimes of severe violence.

Additional Resources

Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University
Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking, University of Minnesota
Centre for Restorative Justice, Simon Fraser University School of Criminology
Community Justice Exchange
Community Justice Institute, Florida Atlantic University
Family Law-Restorative Justice Project, University of Wisconsin Law School
Fraser Region Community Justice Initiatives Association
International Institute for Restorative Practices
PFI Centre for Justice and Reconciliation
Restorative Justice Initiative, Marquette University Law School
Restorative Justice Project, Fresno Pacific University

Witness Justice, PO Box 2516, Rockville, MD 20847-2516, 301.846.9110, info@witnessjustice.org

Last Updated on November 15, 2011

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