What is Restorative Justice (RJ)?
Restorative justice recognises that when a crime is committed, it entails more than the offender breaking a law - harm has been inflicted on victims. As the name implies, restorative justice believes that a just response is one that repairs the harm on top of addressing the wrongdoing. Typically, RJ is associated with these principles: i) a reparition of harm caused by the crime; ii) involving stakeholders such as the offender, victim, their families, and community’ and iii) making positive changes on the people and communities involved. These principles may be presented in different ways, such as ‘rehabilitation’, ‘recovery’, ‘awareness and assumption of responsibility’ - they are all good attempts at characterising RJ.
The focus of restorative justice includes resocialisation, the assumption of responsibility, rehabilitation, and protection of the victim from second victimisation. This is in contrast to retributive justice, which aims to punish offenders.
RJ also places an emphasis on extra-judicial conflict resolution. Criminal acts are not seen as a legal problem, but as a conflict which can be solved by the parties and their social environment. That being said, formal criminal justice systems can encompass principles of RJ. All sanctions aim at restoring the peace between victim and offender and in society in general.
How is this different from diversion? Often ‘RJ’ may be used interchangeably with ‘diversion’, but to stick to the core meaning of ‘RJ’, any type of ‘RJ’ should encompass the principles listed above. This way, RJ should be seen as a subset of diversion and an approach to handling crime, but it is not equivalent to diversion.
Restorative justice, like diversion, can take place at many stages of the judicial process. Upon first contact, police may choose to allow extra-judicial mediation to take place. RJ principles can continue to manifest in the justice system all the way to post-incarceration, where ex-offenders are given assistance to rehabilitate and grow during and after imprisonment.
Examples of RJ practices include:
- Victim-offender mediation (VOM): trained mediators bring the victim and offender together to talk about the crime, the impact of it, and how to right the wrong
- Circles: similar to VOM, but extended to involve family and community members
- Conferencing: similar to VOM, but more closely linked to the criminal justice system than VOM or circles
- Victim-offender panels: brings together unrelated victims and offenders who are linked by a common type of crime
- Victim assistance programs: provides services to victims to help them recover from the crime and get through the criminal justice process
- Ex-offender assistance: offers services to offenders while in prison and post-release
The following practices are often characterised as ‘restorative’, but they do not strictly fit the profile of a truly restorative practice because they can be and have been used in more vindictive or destructive ways:
- Restitution: offenders offer financial compensation or in-kind services to victims
- Community service: offenders perform unpaid community work to repair the indirect harm caused by the crime
- Victim compensation funds: government or third parties that provide payments to victims proportional to the harm they suffered.
The debate on the terminology of RJ is well reflected in Wood and Suzuki (2016)
Here are some purported benefits of RJ:
- Lower recidivism
- It reduces the costs criminal justice - from the reduction in the use of legal procedures and detention
- A greater perception of fairness
- Reparation of emotional and other types of harm caused by the crime
- Greater victim satisfaction
- Overall, it is a more socially constructive method to deal with offenders than conventional punitive action
Potential limitations of RJ:
- Many justice systems are predicated on ‘proportionality’ - that offences deserve punishment to a similar degree. For serious crimes, RJ may not work or receive support;
- In societies where a punitive climate is pervasive, the political society may pose barriers to embracing changes in the justice system from a retributive to a more restorative one.
What Have We Learnt?
- There exists evidence to show that RJ is a promising development in our administration of justice.
- However, there exist some inconsistency among the results, e.g. some studies find that RJ is effective on non-serious crime offenders, while others say it works better on serious crimes.
- Take the results with a pinch of salt; local cultures and norms may be the source of such discrepancies. RJ is highly customisable according to the needs of particular communities, and isn’t one size fit all.
- RJ can be tested using pilot projects e.g. in schools and communities before a larger scale rollout.
- Some factors which may hinder the adoption of RJ may include: a lack of trust in a society, punitive climate and lack of funding.
- As much as possible, RJ should be community led, not government instituted to stay true to its restorative principles and avoid cooptation by more retributive criminal justice systems.
Download the document below to read more on the subject, including examples of how restorative justice works in practice.