restorative justice

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Restorative Justice

A philosophical framework and a series of programs for the criminal justice system that emphasize the need to repair the harm done to crime victims through a process of negotiation, mediation, victim empowerment, and Reparation.

The U.S. criminal justice system historically has employed two models for dealing with crime and criminals. The retribution model emphasizes deterrence and punishment through the adversarial criminal justice process, and the rehabilitation model emphasizes the need for society to assist criminals in changing their attitudes and behavior. Since the 1970s, however, a third model, called restorative justice, has begun to find acceptance in many U.S. communities. Restorative justice emphasizes an equal concern for crime victims and offenders, while deemphasizing the importance of coercion. It also seeks to focus on the harm done to persons and relationships rather than on the violation of a law. Beyond its philosophical framework, the restorative justice model includes a number of programs for addressing the needs of crime victims, the community, and offenders.

Restorative justice began in Canada in the mid-1970s as an idea for victim-offender reconciliation. Offenders were brought to their victims' homes to see and hear how their crimes had affected the victims and the victims' families and communities. The Mennonite Church was at the forefront of the restorative justice movement, emphasizing Christian principles of personal salvation and peacemaking. Though restorative justice became more secularized in the 1980s and 1990s, many of its core principles are based on Christian beliefs about forgiveness and healing.

Originally viewed as a fringe idea, restorative justice developed respectability in the 1990s, in part because the retribution model had proved to be an expensive and seemingly ineffective way of dealing with crime in the United States. Proponents of restorative justice argue that it is a clear alternative to retribution, emphasizing the need for community involvement in addressing criminal behavior. Today restorative justice programs can be found around the world.

There are many programs and ideas associated with restorative justice. Several hundred communities have adopted the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP), which brings the victim and the offender together to talk about the crime and its impact on the victim and to mediate a solution acceptable to both parties. In a VORP mediation, the offender recognizes the injustice he has committed and negotiates a plan to restore the victim and repair the damage. In addition to seeking financial restitution for the victim, VORP attempts to heal the victim's emotional wounds and to impress upon the offender the consequences of the crime and the need for changing behavior.

Ideally, restorative justice programs such as VORP rely on cooperation rather than coercion to make the offender feel accountable for his actions. However, coercion may be used if the goal is to encourage the offender to cooperate.

Other restorative justice programs include community service options for offenders, often with the input of crime victims; comprehensive victim services; and community advisory boards on crimes that address situations that promote crime. The concept of circles, which have long existed among Native Americans in the United States and Canada, has gained appeal. The victim and the offender agree to participate in a group meeting in which members of the community provide their guidance and perspectives. "Healing circles" allow the offender to express remorse while giving the victim and the community an opportunity to accept that remorse. In "sentencing circles," the community helps decide the proper response to the crime. The circle concept has worked within Native American cultures in part because they tend to be close-knit and circles require the participation of community members. Conferencing, which originated among the Maori of New Zealand, is used with juvenile offenders. Conferencing involves discussion and mediation, but it includes members of the community (families, community support groups, police, attorneys) along with the victim and the offender.

A prime component of restorative justice is restitution to crime victims. For example, if an offender vandalizes a car, that person must pay for the repairs. Restitution has also become part of the retribution model of justice as well, with courts making restitution to the victim along with sentencing the offender to jail or imposing a fine. In restorative justice, restitution is part of a larger goal to restore the crime victim's loss and to impress upon the offender the destructive aspects of crime.

Further readings

Braithwaite, John. 2002. Restorative Justice & Responsive Regulation. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Walgrave, Lode, ed. 2002. Restorative Justice and the Law. Uffculme, Cullompton, Devon, U.K.: Willan Publishing.

Weitekamp, Elmar, and Hans-Jurgen Kerner, eds. 2003. Restorative Justice: Theoretical Foundations. Uffculme, Cullompton, Devon, U.K.: Willan Publishing.


Sentencing; Victims of Crime.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

restorative justice

a method of dealing with convicted criminals in which they are urged to accept responsibility for their offences through meeting victims, making amends to victims or the community.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006
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