Twenty-five years of crime policy focused more on punishment than on rehabilitation has reduced public trust in the criminal justice system, backlogged courts, and packed U.S. prisons with 2.2 million people—more now than ever, and more than anywhere else in the world. With incarceration taking larger shares of state budgets, even some formerly “tough on crime” conservatives who backed strict sentencing policies are saying it’s time for a different approach.
Some are looking to an alternate criminal justice process called restorative justice, which has roots in ancient aboriginal and Native American cultures. Though the modern justice system focuses on punishment for a crime against the state, restorative justice views crime as an offense against an individual and seeks to repair the harm done to victims, their families, and the community.
In diversion programs, the most common restorative justice format now applied to a wide range of crimes, police and prosecutors identify prospective cases—usually involving first-time offenders—with the potential to be taken out of the court system and placed on a parallel track of restorative justice. Offenders are interviewed to determine how open and remorseful they appear, and if a victim agrees, a group dialogue conference is held. It’s important that participants begin the process enitrely of their own volition and without pressure from other involved parties. Led by trained facilitators, victim and offender come face-to-face with other stakeholders in the crime, such as police, attorneys, parents, and representatives of the community, such as clergy. They take turns talking about how the crime has affected them or those they represent. The parties then agree on some form of restitution, which may involve prison.
Such programs are taking hold in counties and states across the country, typically through a partnership between a court and an advocacy organization focused on criminal justice reform. Critics worry that research on its long-term effectiveness is scant and that manipulative offenders can exploit the process. However, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a criminal justice research organization in Oakland, California, points to studies showing less recidivism, reduced court and prison costs, and greater victim “satisfaction” compared with the conventional system. “Victims and family members want answers to questions that have been haunting them that only the offender can answer,” says Marilyn Armour, director of the Institute for Restorative Justice and Restorative Dialogue at the University of Texas at Austin. “Some want to know exactly what happened.”
Meeting with the person who killed your son or robbed you isn’t for everyone. But as the following cases show, restorative justice can be a practical and powerful way for perpetrators to recognize the consequences of their decisions, and for victims and survivors to gain understanding and even closure.