Restorative justice is based on the fact that crime causes harm. What is justice, then? It’s healing the harm. Restorative justice states that those most affected by the crime – including the offenders and the victims – should participate in the healing. This stands in contrast to most methods of justice, which tend to focus on punishment and retribution. Restorative justice can (and has been) implemented into existing structures. It’s had positive results. A study in 2007 found that restorative justice programs have both the highest rate of victim satisfaction and offender accountability of any justice method. Here are five examples of this concept in practice:
Victim assistance, as the name implies, focuses on the victims and survivors of crime. These programs provide services that address a variety of concerns. That includes navigating the criminal justice process and emotional recovery. There are two main focuses: the legal rights of victims and the personal crises that result from a crime. Victims’ rights advocates are there to offer legal representation, supporting survivors through the complex and stressful criminal justice system. With their knowledge and experience, advocates work on behalf of victims who most likely do not understand the nitty-gritty of the system.
Being the victim of crime is often traumatic. That trauma can make daily tasks and responsibilities challenging. While a victims’ right advocate can help with the legal side of things, survivors usually need additional assistance. Community support groups and mental health services can step in, offering psychological help and physical resources. Victims’ right advocates and other victim assistance programs are necessary to help people recover and continue with their lives.
When someone commits a crime, they are harming the victims and the community as a whole. Community service can help the offender get an idea of the harm they’ve caused and provide them an opportunity to help in the healing. To be productive, community service must focus on accountability as opposed to punishment. Governments and nonprofits run community service programs.
There is debate about if community service really helps anyone. Does the service truly mitigate the harm caused? Is the community at large a victim in the same sense that the involved individuals are? It’s difficult to measure the harm that crime causes to the community. For community service to be effective, those involved in program development should carefully identify harms and what types of work match up with what types of crimes.
In this restorative justice example, a victim and offender talk to each other. A trained mediator facilitates. The goal is for the parties to agree on how justice should be fulfilled. The victim chooses to participate. While the offender technically has a choice, as well, there’s often a harsher outcome lurking in the wings if they don’t try mediation. The main benefit of this choice is that it brings justice into the hands of those most directly impacted by the crime. They don’t have to leave it up completely to the state.
Victim-offender mediation is only an option if both parties are deemed “appropriate.” That means they need to be psychologically capable and aware that the process is voluntary. It’s also important that the victim is not further harmed by meeting the offender. During the process, the victim gets to express how the crime has harmed them, while the offender can explain what happened. This is also their chance to show regret. At this point, the victim and offender agree on how to repair the harm done. Studies show that victim-offender mediation is very effective at reducing offenders’ criminal behavior. Mediation also has high satisfaction rates and high victim participation.
Many restorative justice programs are based in indigenous cultures. Peacemaking circles are one of them. In the 1980s, circles were adapted for the criminal justice system thanks to the work of Yukon people and justice officials. Their goal was to bring the community and formal justice system closer together. In 1991, a judge in the Yukon Territorial Court introduced a sentencing circle. Circles are similar to victim-offender mediation in that they involve discussion. Circles can include whole families or just a few individuals.
Circles are most commonly found in the Yukon, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. Navajo peacemaking courts in the US have also used circles. They’re used for a variety of offenses for both juveniles and adults. There aren’t many studies on the effectiveness of peacemaking circles, but the research that does exist shows good results. In one study from Minnesota, people reported building strong connections. Because everyone is allowed to speak and participate, circles are considered fair.
Family group conferencing
Another method based in indigenous thinking, conferencing has roots in the Maori people’s whanau conference. Whanau conferences have traditionally helped the community deal with youth who have harmed others in some way. In 1989, New Zealand passed the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act, also known as the “Oranga Tamariki Act 1989.” This included the groundbreaking Family Group Conference. It established how to deal with juvenile offenders without processing them through the courts. The Act gave authority to the families of the offender and victim, as well as other community support entities, to decide on what to do.
In conferencing, a trained facilitator is always present. Participation is voluntary for everyone. To participate, the offender must first admit to the offense. At the conference, the victim and their supporters can describe the impact of the offense and ask the offender questions. Together, the group discusses what to do next and how the harm can be repaired.