Restorative justice

Coming to peace

When we talk about the “restorative” approach to justice, we are talking about a fundamentally different approach to justice from the one we have now. Restorative justice was born out of the belief that crime is something more than just breaking a law and that the role of the criminal justice system should be about more than catching, convicting and punishing the guilty.

International experts suggest that through most eras in most civilizations, restorative or reparative responses were the norm, in contrast to the adversarial model of justice that dominates today. These reparative approaches have re-emerged in recent years in many countries, in a movement dubbed restorative justice.

Restorative justice defines crime as real harm done to real people. It challenges us to focus our attention and our efforts on the human impacts of crime—the fear, anger, pain, disempowerment, alienation and grief that people are often left with, and on the questions of accountability, regaining control of one’s life, reparation and healing that those affected by crime need to address. Restorative justice (RJ) calls for the criminal justice system to assist the parties to identify and address the harm done by mechanisms of support, accountability and healing that do not create new harm in the process. Smart Justice recognizes that communities themselves must take this lead and should be given the resources to do so.

RJ programs come in many different forms, depending on the social traditions and preferences of each country or local jurisdiction. But their hallmark is concern for the people and relationships affected by a crime. How can we assist the victim in healing from the harm? How can we help the offender understand  the impacts, accept responsibility, make amends? What is needed for the community and its members to live together again, to come to some peace?

Common RJ techniques include family group conferencing, community justice forums, sentencing circles and peacemaking circles. Worthwhile related restorative activities are victim–offender mediations that do not include the community, but still often bring about a positive and satisfactory result for the parties. RJ has been applied in Canada at every stage of the criminal justice system, from police diversion to the post-sentence (incarceration and parole) stage. Although it has been used mostly to deal with less serious crimes, it can be applied in cases of serious crimes, taking into account the more challenging interpersonal dynamics in these cases.

A growing body of research shows that RJ markedly increases the satisfaction of those affected by the conflict—especially the victim, but also the community and offenders. RJ has also been shown to reduce recidivism in many circumstances, especially when accompanied by interventions that address problem areas such as health, education, and socio-economic issues.

Concerns have been raised in some quarters about a gap between the philosophy and practice, about whether restorative programs adequately respect and address the needs of victims, about the interface between restorative programs and the criminal justice system, about its application in domestic and sexual cases, and about the impact of restorative processes on sentencing.

These issues need to be explored, but the expanding vision of restorative justice offers us new perspectives and new tools that excite those who are disenchanted and unsatisfied with our current justice processes.

Restorative justice is an evolving and expanding approach that offers the promise of a new paradigm of justice, one focused on accountability, inclusion, problem-solving and healing.

James Scott with Danny GrahamKimberly Mann and Sheila Arthurs