Explainer: What the Concept of restorative justice really means

Explainer: What the Concept of restorative justice really means

The concept of restorative justice is a common phrase in criminal justice reform. It focuses on weighing someone’s needs and the circumstances that may have led to the crime committed. While restorative justice looks different for every case, as a whole it can contribute to recidivism rates for certain individuals. While there are some states that have laws on restorative justice practices, there is more that can be done.

What does “restorative justice” generally mean?

Restorative Justice is a theory on how to handle the aftermath of a crime. The concept of restorative justice focuses on those who are considered harmed by a crime committed. This means that restorative justice is a victim-centric approach. It also involves community-centric efforts to remedy that crime. Restorative justice prioritizes the circumstances surrounding someone committing a crime.

As a result, it addresses personalized needs as an incarcerated individual prepares to re-enter society. This means that restorative justice looks different for every case — there is no single, consistent process.

Often, people use the term “restorative justice” when a victim meets with someone who did the crime. However, this is not the only thing restorative justice is. Other examples include community support for incarcerated individuals preparing for reentry, education or healthcare programs, or counseling for the incarcerated person’s family.

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The roots of restorative justice go back to the 1970s.

The use of restorative justice began as early as the 1970s as a new way to address crime. This is because it deprofessionalizes the justice process and personalizes it instead. Two leaders of getting restorative justice were Jerold S. Auerbach and Nils Christie. Auerbach’s piece Justice Without Law? is one of the first works to propose a more personalized approach to litigation.  Christie proposed “participatory justice” as an alternative response to crime. “Participatory justice” is another term for restorative justice. Christie explained it as when “those affected by conflict are the ones to resolve the issues.”

However, the general ideas behind restorative justice began in the 1960s. It started with advocating for restitution, a fundamental element of restorative justice. This involves compensating a victim for a crime committed. This ideal was popular across many different countries. One of the largest leaders for the restitution movement was Stephen Schafer. In his work, he emphasized the idea that Europe focused on a “golden age of the victim” during the 1960s. Schafer titled the era such because their wants and needs gained more attention.

What is restorative justice?
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Restorative justice versus retributive justice—what’s the difference?

Retributive justice is the idea that the offender should face punitive measures. Restorative justice is a collaborative approach to resolving the impacts of the crime. It also focuses on the future implications of the crime. Further, restorative justice and retributive justice have different ideas of the victim.

Retributive justice considers the victim of a crime as the state or law itself. In contrast, restorative justice looks at the victim of a crime as people directly harmed. It also looks at the relationships affected in an individual’s community. Another difference between restorative and retributive justice is the focus on the justice-impacted person. Retributive justice looks at past behavior, especially the crime. In contrast, restorative justice looks at future behavior. While both consider one’s past, restorative justice focuses on the potential rehabilitation of those charged with crimes.

Some argue that restorative justice is “easier” on someone who committed a crime. This is not true. Neither theory of justice aims to be more “difficult” or “easy.” on those convicted. Rather, they focus on how to look at crime. One study showed that offender satisfaction from restorative justice was not statistically significant, meaning that such practices not shown significant personal relief for the victim nor those accused of crime, only a different experience.

There are correlations between restorative justice and recidivism rates.

Restorative justice practices reduce recidivism rates for both juveniles and adults. Studies show that less intensive models of restorative justice reduce recidivism risk. An example of less intense restorative justice models is the indirect mediation program facilitator. Another success was noted through screening juveniles for recidivism risk. This allowed for less intensive restorative justice programs for lower recidivism risk juveniles, and intensive restorative justice programs for those with higher recidivism risk.

Combining recidivism risk screening and allocation of restorative justice needs can promote economic savings by helping juveniles stay out of the criminal justice system. Using restorative justice practices with juveniles encourages both victim-centric and criminal-behavior understanding. Both victims and juveniles receive intuitive treatment and care. This also encourages practices like raising the juvenile court age and ending life without parole for children, focusing on rehabilitation over punishment.

Restorative justice has positive impacts on adults as well. Studies show that restorative justice practices reduce recidivism rates for incarcerated adults. One study found there was a positive impact on  72% of those in restorative justice practices. Compared to other practices, restorative justice also had lower recidivism rates.

In continual follow-ups with study participants, restorative justice practices have shown lower recidivism rates. However, the study expressed certain biases throughout the process, such as self-selection bias. But, other studies have yielded similar results while avoiding the self-selection bias.

More than 30 states have policies involving restorative justice.

As of 2017, 32 states have laws about restorative justice. Legislation on restorative justice gained popularity in the 1990s. However, research is harder to find on restorative justice and legislation. This is because some of these laws only give support for restorative justice. This is also because restorative justice looks different for every case, as already explained. Basically, it is harder to track legislation on a concept that varies case-by-case. Ultimately, this means that criminal justice reform advocates have more difficulty advocating for its systemic use.

But, other states’ legislation have had more structured practices for restorative justice. As a result, these models can be used for advocacy. One example is Colorado. Colorado has a Restorative Justice Coordinating Council (RJCC). This council focuses on training and refining restorative justice practices. The RJCC focuses on juveniles. But, the RJCC could serve as a framework for expanding restorative justice practices. Such organizations could help justice-impacted individuals, victims and the greater community.

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