Restorative Justice: Can It Help Reform our Criminal Justice System?

“Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behavior.  It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders.”  (Prison Fellowship International, 2007)  The stakeholders here are the victim, the offender and the community.  Restorative justice aims to rebalance the imbalance between the stakeholders caused by the commission of the crime by the offender.

While restorative justice involves the community, it is different from community corrections.  Community corrections is a form of retributive justice where the offender is “punished” and “corrected” by such means as probation and community service.  Restorative justice, instead, attempts to create peace between the victim, the offender and the community and is more concerned with restoring relationships than it is with punishment.  Restorative justice ideals come from Peacemaking theories that state “you don’t end violence by creating more of it” (Braswell, McCarthy, & McCarthy, 2008, p. 32).  Peacemaking sees us all as connected and therefore even the offender is part of humanity and deserves to be treated in a forgiving manner.

Restorative justice can have real healing benefits for the victim and the offender.  Restorative Justice Online shares many real life stories from both victims and offenders who had favorable experiences with the process.  Opinions on the relative uses of restorative justice seem to vary.  One victim stated that while helpful, “it should only be used ‘in addition’ to the maximum possible sentence” (Prison Fellowship International, 2007).  Another victim expressed the immense healing and benefit she received by the restorative justice process:  “That we have choice to give and receive kindness and hope has been highlighted for me in knowing that life always asks us, as Gandhi said, to participate in being the change we wish to see.” (Sluytman, 2008)  This is a very powerful statement that sheds light on the powerful effect restorative justice practices can have on some.  It is my personal belief that, at least until we see the outcome in recidivism amongst offenders involved with restorative justice, restorative justice should be coupled with retributive justice in all cases.  I also believe that it should not be a voluntary process but mandatory for the offender (the victim would still have a choice, of course).

From a deontological perspective, restorative justice would be a slap in the face to justice and fairness.  Deontologists believe in retributive theory and its necessity in order to “balance the scales”.  Some deontologists might allow some forms of restorative justice that assist with victim healing but only if they were combined with retributive aspects as well.  I believe Kantian’s would also lean toward this thought as Kantian ethics is primarily deontological: “Kant’s moral philosophy is an attempt to explain why the sense of duty … is the very essence of morality.” (Hall, 2000, p. 88)

Peacemaking approaches are at the heart of restorative justice.  The principles of connectedness, mindfulness and caring are the very foundation that restorative justice principles are built upon.  Through restorative justice processes the victim and the offender are taught the concept of connectedness and that ultimately: “What we do to others, in one way or another, we also do to ourselves.” (Braswell, McCarthy, & McCarthy, 2008, p. 30)  Mindfulness is learned as the victim and the offender see things differently, from the other side, for the first time and learn to be mindful of each other’s personal feelings and emotions.  Healing is aided for the victim when they observe an offender who hurts at their mistakes, cries and asks for forgiveness and is mindful of the victim’s pain.  Caring is an add-on to this.  The offender shows that they care for the victim and their suffering which helps to heal the victim.  In turn, the victim might offer forgiveness which helps heal the offender; even if forgiveness is not openly offered, the offender may benefit by knowing the victim is now suffering less due to their participation and expression of caring.

Current ethics and philosophies in the criminal justice system favor retributive justice and are seemingly calling for tougher and tougher punishments.  Restorative justice does not “fit” well with retributive justice as they are somewhat opposed to each other; it may be difficult to find a balance of justice that satisfies both restorative and retributive justice needs.  Retributive justice alone, however, does not seem to be solving the problem.  Recidivism rates are extremely high while deterrence and rehabilitation benefits seem close to nil for the majority.  Rather than choosing an “all or nothing” approach, it seems that utilizing both approaches might help.  It would be careless of the criminal justice system to “test” restorative justice approaches while entirely absolving retributive justice approaches; there simply is not enough empirical data to state whether one type of justice works better than the other.  However, in the meantime, restorative justice approaches can be (and are being) slowly introduced into the system in addition to current retributive approaches.  As more and more research is conducted on the benefits of restorative justice approaches, the criminal justice system can change as necessary to incorporate these approaches if they are found to be successful in the goals of reducing recidivism while increasing deterrence and rehabilitation.  My personal opinion is that while restorative justice approaches may reduce recidivism and increase rehabilitation, they would completely lack a deterrent factor.  For this reason I believe I would have to remain a proponent of a dual system that incorporates restorative justice approaches mainly for the healing of the victim and rehabilitation of the offender, but that also provides deterrence with retributive approaches.

Works Cited

Braswell, M. C., McCarthy, B. R., & McCarthy, B. J. (2008). Justice, Crime and Ethics. Newark: Anderson Publishing.

Hall, R. A. (2000). The Ethical Foundations of Criminal Justice. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Prison Fellowship International. (2007, Nov 17). Introduction to Restorative Justice. Retrieved February 6, 2009, from Restorative Justice Online: http://www.restorativejustice.org/intro

Prison Fellowship International. (2007, November). Real People, Real Stories. Retrieved February 6, 2009, from Restorative Justice Online: http://www.restorativejustice.org/resources/stories

Sluytman, M. V. (2008, February 28). Finding a Song – New Narrative After Murder. Retrieved February 6, 2009, from Restorative Justice Online: http://www.restorativejustice.org/resources/docs/vansluytman/at_download/file

 

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