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Restorative Justice: Breaking the Cycle of Crime

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

Restorative justice is a more empathetic and comprehensive approach to addressing criminal behavior when compared with the traditional justice model. It examines the harmful impact of a crime or wrongdoing and considers what can be done to repair that harm. This cooperative model typically includes government and legal professionals who serve as facilitators in a process that aims to achieve offender accountability, reparation to the victim, and full participation by all parties impacted by the crime.

Within the restorative justice model, accountability means accepting responsibility for the wrongdoing and, to the extent possible, working to repair the harm done. This approach also seeks to understand the underlying reasons for the offense and help reduce the likelihood of re-offense.

History of Restorative Justice

Restorative justice began as a field of practice in the 1970s. The objective was to seek a more holistic approach to crime and criminal behavior by focusing on all impacted parties. The primary goal is to help repair the harm caused by a crime while simultaneously considering the humanity of all involved, including the offender. Rather than focusing on a criminal act as a violation of law, restorative justice views the act as a violation of people, relationships, and the community, and seeks to repair the harm.

While the initial focus of restorative justice was on the criminal justice system, this practice has since been expanded to schools and workplaces.

Key Principles of Restorative Justice

Three key principles work together to repair harm to the victim, address the root cause of the crime, and ideally, transform unjust systems and structures in order to reduce or prevent future crime.

Encounter. The first step in the process involves bringing together all parties who are impacted by the crime. Stakeholders may include victims, family members, offenders, and other community members. Participation is voluntary for all parties, and offenders must agree to take full responsibility for their actions prior to any meetings.

Meetings are facilitated in safe spaces where participants can express vulnerability without judgment, and offenders are empowered to make amends for their actions directly to the impacted parties. During restorative encounters, victims have the opportunity to meet the offender, and offenders obtain a deeper understanding of the crime’s impact. Together, the victim and offender may develop a plan to address the harm. Restorative encounters can provide an environment where forgiveness and reconciliation is possible.

Should a stakeholder be unable or unwilling to participate in a restorative encounter, other approaches may be taken to repair the harm caused by the wrongdoing. These approaches can include restitution, community service, and other means of reparation.

Repair. The second principle seeks to address the individual needs of all stakeholders, including the victim’s need for healing and the offender’s need to make amends. This step in the process seeks to repair harm and facilitate healing in a collaborative and inclusive manner. Outcomes are agreed upon, not imposed. Material, emotional, and spiritual support are often utilized to address victim and offender reintegration.

Transform. Victims and offenders are transformed as a result of the restorative encounters and the work that is done to repair harm from the crime. The process focuses on identifying the root causes of the crime. When the problem is determined to be structural or systemic, the issue can be addressed as such, and potentially transform communities and reduce the likelihood of future crime.

Victims often find comfort in knowing that steps have been taken to address the cause of the crime and reduce potential future harm to themselves and others.

Retributive Justice vs. Restorative Justice

Both retributive justice and restorative justice seek vindication through reciprocity, but the theories differ on how that is achieved. Additionally, retributive justice focuses mainly on the offender and often views the state as the victim. In this more traditional approach, the primary objective is ensuring that offenders are adequately punished, and as such it is not uncommon to consider victims as a secondary concern. Restorative justice focuses on all stakeholders but places the priority on concern for victims and their needs.

The theory of retributive justice suggests that pain will offer vindication. However, many involved in the historical justice system believe this method is counterproductive to healing societal wounds and does not aid in the search for peace. In contrast, restorative justice measures success by how much harm is repaired or prevented rather than the traditional measurement of how much punishment is imposed.

The three principles of restorative justice work together to offer more effective tools to achieve healing for all involved. This approach recognizes that crime harms both victims as well as offenders and allows for the involvement of additional stakeholders in the process.

While the ideal approach to addressing crime may be through restorative justice, there may be instances when retributive justice, including the rule of law and due process, are necessary. There may also be cases where elements of both systems can be implemented for a more productive outcome.

Repairing the Harm Caused By Crime

Restorative justice prioritizes the victim’s needs and the offender’s responsibility for harming them. It also acknowledges the harm caused to the offender and to the greater community.

The theory suggests that violations create obligations rather than guilt and reparations should be made, whether they are concrete, symbolic, or in some cases, both. In severe crimes, such as murder, there is no question of repair, and the focus becomes a journey toward healing. The journey is that of the victim alone, and the focus must be an effort to assist in this process. Support from the community, the opportunity to express the harm that was experienced, and participation in decision-making, serve to aid in the victim’s healing process.

While the first obligation is that of the offender, the community and society share some responsibility as well. Should systemic causes be identified, efforts must be made to rectify these issues. Ideally, restorative justice can act as a catalyst for exploring and potentially rectifying situations that cause or encourage crime.

Breaking the Cycle of Crime

While not the driving force behind restorative justice, its focus on rehabilitation through reconciliation often results in reduced rates of recidivism and crime.

Providing offenders with an opportunity to make amends directly to those impacted by the crime can help the healing process. A more positive approach can help empower offenders to develop healthier relationships in the future as they re-enter society. Identifying systemic or societal causes that lead to criminal behavior during the process of repair can also prevent or deter future crimes, thus breaking the cycle.

Final Thoughts

By addressing the dehumanization that is frequently experienced by participants in the traditional criminal justice system, restorative justice offers a more complete and empathetic approach to rectifying harm caused by crime or wrongdoing.

The process allows for the involvement of all stakeholders and encourages repair and healing for victims, family members, the community, and offenders.

At a minimum, the process serves as an invitation for dialogue and exploration. However, it often results in transformed victims, offenders, and communities.

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