Restorative justice is a distinct philosophy of justice that focuses on making amends for harm done. Essentially, restorative justice fulfils the basic requirements of the “social contract,” which in the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau forms the basis of civil society. The fundamental principle of restorative philosophy is that when a person has harmed another, the most useful response is to try to repair the harm. Restorative justice stretches far beyond ideas about criminal justice to encompass civil renewal, individual responsibility, conflict resolution, empowerment, shaming, and forgiveness. Though the term restorative justice in itself is relatively recent, when reviewed in the context of its historical development it becomes apparent that key terms of restitution, reparation, compensation, reconciliation, atonement, redress, community service, and mediation are all used interchangeably in the literature. These key terms have collectively been united under the umbrella of what is now known as restorative justice.
Restorative justice operates within and outside the criminal justice process, through policy initiatives and civil society responses. Though it may have come to prominence in Western societies only in the 1980s, the concept is far from new and can be linked to traditions of the Celts, Maori, Samoans, and other indigenous peoples, as well as having roots in various religious communities. For some commentators it is not a new form of justice but rather dates back and returns society to premodern forms of justice.
In this context restorative justice is seen as timeless, with the modern criminal justice system as an abnormal development requiring explanation. The modern state is considered to have “stolen the conflict” from communities, victims, and offenders and in the process buried long-standing traditions of restorative justice. Some go as far to suggest that restorative justice has been the dominant model of criminal justice throughout most of human history for all of the world’s people. Furthermore, its re-emergence in recent decades is connected to a number of social, political, and cultural changes, for example the rearticulation of rights and responsibilities between the state and civil society particularly inspired by neoliberal assaults on the welfare state, and the increasing salience given to victims of crime.
Restorative Justice in Practice
The practical aim of restorative justice is to consider the impact on victims and others involved, be they family, friends, peers, or members of the wider community. It also endeavors to explore the impact upon the community and implicitly seeks to limit the role of legal professionals. As advocated in N. Christie’s call to “have as few experts as we dare,” the goal of restorative justice is to empower victims, offenders, family members, and others as partners in the justice process. Restorative justice relocates authority in responses to crime away from the state to stakeholders themselves, who are afforded the maximum degree of control over deliberation and decision making.
The importance of participatory and deliberative processes emphasizes the value of participation, empowerment, communication, dialogue, and negotiated agreements. Informal environments in which stakeholders are comfortable are conducive to good communication between parties. At the heart of the restorative justice philosophy lies a concern with a particular mode of participatory conflict resolution that centers on consensus building through a problem-solving approach to crime that is grounded in local knowledge and local capacity. Restorative processes emphasize the importance of offender and victim participation—choice and control in the process of face-to-face encounters and decision making. Restoring a sense of control to the central parties is a key aspect of the restorative process. One intended consequence of party-centered control and participation is to restore responsibility to participants, in the belief that this will encourage offenders to be more accountable for their actions and to encourage others to take responsibility for ensuring the successful implementation of any agreement reached.
Discussing the consequences of offenses is seen to be a more powerful way of communicating the gravity of their offense to offenders in a way that brings home the impact on victims. It is believed that a process that treats people with respect and encourages their empowerment is more legitimate in the eyes of those participating. Furthermore it encourages a general respect for the law and understanding of the consequences of individual action on others. Restorative justice maintains and appeals to particular restorative outcomes or resolutions. Repairing the harm caused by the crime to all of those directly and indirectly affected is the ultimate aim of restorative interventions. Reparation may be symbolic as well as material, the intention being that outcomes should seek to heal relationships. In practice, these often include verbal or written apologies, compensation or direct reparation to the victim for the harm, and indirect reparation to the community, which may take a variety of forms. It is suggested that restorative outcomes should be flexible and party-centered as well as problem-oriented.
Restorative practices have been expanding since the late 20th century, and as a result a range of approaches have been applied to different problems including family relationships, school bullying, training programs, industrial relations, and complaints against police, in addition to all types of crime. However, the range of practices and programs of restorative justice are too diverse for there to be an agreed upon definition. Whereas some place emphasis on core values and principles, others focus on aims and outcomes or make reference to specific programs or practices. Despite this difficulty it is widely accepted that restorative justice is a face-to-face process that involves offenders, victims, their representatives, and representatives of the community coming together to agree to a response to a crime.
Restorative Justice and Civil Society
The restorative justice movement has its roots in the international movements that have shaped contemporary understandings of restorative justice. The inception of the modern restorative justice movement can be found within the Civil Rights and women’s movements of the 1960s. The U.S. civil rights movement was, according to this view, partially rooted in critiques of institutional racism in the American justice system.
This racial critique also framed its arguments around the disproportionate imprisonment of African Americans and other minority groups. Campaigns for prisoners’ rights and alternatives to imprisonment can also be traced back to the New Left era in the United States. In addition, challenges to unfair justice systems occurred in other jurisdictions, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. The women’s movement also provided an important focus on crimes of violence against women, which argued for better alternatives in justice. According to K. Daly and R. Immarigeon, “feminist organizing, and feminist groups were among the first to call attention to the mistreatment of victims in the criminal justice process” and prisoners’ rights campaigns. These early advocates in the restorative justice movement mobilized around problems for society emanating from an over-reliance on prisons alongside the lack of a voice for victims in the justice process.
Daly and Immarigeon also outline the various kinds of initiatives that gave rise to the wider mobilization of the restorative justice movement. These included the following initiatives, which empowered victims and communities: prisoners’ rights and alternatives to prisons, conflict resolution, victim–offender reconciliation programs (VORPs), victim–offender mediation (VOMs), victim advocacy; family group conferences (FGCs)/the “Wagga” Model, sentencing circles, and victim impact panels (originally established by Mothers Against Drunk Driving or MADD). As with many elements of the New Left movement that emerged from the counterculture, research and academic inquiry into justice alternatives ran parallel (or followed local initiatives) with social movement activism in the pursuit of alternatives to existing justice system practices.
The benefits for victims and offenders who engage in restorative justice processes may outweigh those offered by more traditional methods by providing a shared or community-based platform for dealing with crime and its private and public outcomes such as pain, remorse, and guilt. Victims are given the opportunity to meet the offender and relate to him or her their version of events and how the offense has affected them.
Meeting with the offender also gives the victim the opportunity to understand the reason for the offense and perhaps realize that they were not singled out. The meeting may also empower them to overcome worries about possible revictimization. Research has shown victims are empowered through restorative justice and are satisfied by receiving an apology, reparation for the harm caused, and an assurance that there will not be a reoccurrence. The community, which can be said to have failed the offender as much as the victim from a Durkheimian or “anomic” perspective, can also participate in a community-based restoration process.
Restorative Justice and Community Empowerment
The restorative justice philosophy involves all of those affected by the criminal behavior, be they victims, offenders, the families involved, or the wider community. All play their part in resolving the issues that flow from the offending. The restorative justice process empowers all parties to restore the deliberative control of justice by its citizens. The remaining terms of the agreement come about as a result of dialogue, interaction, and agreement between all parties. The restorative justice movement provides an opportunity to achieve a fairer and more satisfactory criminal justice system for all members of society. The “gaps” that exist in the provision of justice through participation in alternative forms of policing through conferencing are established. Restorative justice principles are slowly being accepted as alternatives to sentencing and as a community or individual mediation process. There is a growing acknowledgement among professionals and academics that society needs to develop other responses to crime. The restorative justice process has much to offer by way of community policing initiatives. Centering on the greater use of noncustodial sentences not only will bring about changes in the community’s relationship with the law but also will have significant implications for improved and deeper methods of providing social justice.
These restorative measures improve the context of policing and crime prevention in the community and enhance the processes of justice across society. Through rehabilitation and reintegration rather than traditional punitive measures, offenders come to realize that there is nothing to be gained from leading a life of crime. Ultimately, as an alternative system of policing the community, restorative justice provides a significant alternative based on concepts of sustainable justice rather than short-term punitiveness.
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