What is Restorative Justice?

At the Center on Violence and Recovery (CVR), we believe that the theory and practice of restorative justice (RJ) offers victims, offenders and their communities safe and effective alternatives for responding to crime. In particular, the CVR strongly believes that RJ has much to offer to individuals and families impacted by domestic violence. While we continue our work in this important area, we are aware that a degree of skepticism exists with regards to the use of RJ as a response to domestic violence. However, we feel that much of this skepticism is rooted in misconceptions about what RJ is and what it isn’t. The following description of RJ is an attempt to clarify some of the most common assumptions about restorative justice’s approach to crime, accountability, and safety.

Punitive Justice: Traditional Response to Crime

Restorative justice differs significantly from punitive justice (the type of justice carried out in the conventional criminal justice system). Punitive justice is based on the abstract notion that crimes constitute an offense against the state. In order to prevent future law breaking, the state acts on behalf of society as a whole, and presumably on behalf of the victim, and sets out to punish the offender.

Punitive justice typically does not address rehabilitation and reintegration of the offender back into the community. Punitive justice similarly does not address the needs of victims of crimes. This is where restorative justice steps in – to help everyone affected by a particular crime to develop insights regarding what happened and why, and to determine appropriate paths to accountability. The intention of restorative justice is to help those impacted by a criminal act: the victim, the offender, and the community, to both come to terms with the past and also to alter the course of the future. The act of bringing everyone together to discuss the effects of a particular crime on their lives shifts the focus away from abstract legal concerns and the idea of an “offense against the state,” and refocuses on the harm done to victims and communities. In this way it is the community and family members who are considered the “locus of crime control,” and they are thus expected to participate actively in continuing to prevent or disapprove of crime.

What is Restorative Justice?

Restorative justice is often referred to as a victim-centered approach. In reality though, it is much broader than this and can be more accurately described as “a process of bringing together the individuals who have been affected by an offense and having them agree on how to repair the harm caused by the crime. The purpose is to restore victims, restore offenders, and restore communities in a way that all stakeholders can agree is just.’”

Restorative justice has given rise to many different types of programs around the world for the purpose of promoting healing among those affected by different levels of violence; it can be streamlined into the criminal justice system as a part of sentencing, it can supplement the system, or it can act as an alternative to the traditional system. Moreover, a restorative justice approach is recognized to have special relevance to marginalized populations, those who are targeted and often silenced by the conventional criminal justice system. At the CVR, we have pioneered a restorative justice treatment program for intimate violence. Recently, the Center completed research in Nogales, AZ which compared the efficacy of a traditional batterer intervention program to a restorative justice option called Circles of Peace. The Center’s research in the area of intimate violence and restorative justice continues, with a study on Circles of Peace currently underway in Salt Lake City, UT.

Finally, it is important to understand that restorative justice is not a “soft option” that enables offenders to swindle their way out of being held accountable for their actions. Above all, it is an approach that emphasizes resolution, empowerment, and healing. The offender is required to take responsibility for his or her crime by participating in a process of making restitution to the victim and the community – those most impacted by a crime. It is an effective forum for the victim to have a place to be heard and to oftentimes receive an apology – all of which helps promote the healing and change more effective way than through the tradition criminal justice system approach.

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