Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior. Practices and programs reflecting restorative purposes will respond to crime by 1) identifying and taking steps to repair harm, 2) involving all stakeholders, and 3) transforming the traditional relationship between communities and government in responding to crime. The goal of restorative justice is to bring together those most affected by the criminal act—the offender, the victim, and community members—in a nonadversarial process to encourage offender accountability and meet the needs of the victims to repair the harms resulting from the crime (Bergseth and Bouffard 2007). There are several models of restorative justice discussed below; however, they all share common features, including an emphasis on community-based sanctions, a nonadversarial and informal process, and decision-making by consensus (Bergseth and Bouffard 2007).
While most approaches to juvenile justice concentrate on punishing or treating delinquent youths, the restorative justice process seeks to repair the harm by involving the entire community in rehabilitating offenders and holding them accountable for their behavior. In the traditional juvenile justice system, professionals ask questions such as what laws have been broken or what punishment does the offender deserve? Under the restorative justice model, questions are framed differently, asking: What is the nature of the harm resulting from the crime? What needs to be done to repair the harm? (National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence 2009). By bringing together victims, offenders, families, and other key stakeholders in a variety of settings, restorative justice helps offenders understand the implications of their actions and provides an opportunity for them to become reconnected to the community.
From a restorative justice perspective, rehabilitation cannot be achieved until the offender acknowledges the harm caused to victims and communities and makes amends (Bazemore and Umbreit 1997). Therefore, restorative justice programs are generally voluntary in nature and require offenders, if they are to participate, to admit responsibility for the illegal act. Some of the most common programs typically associated with restorative justice are mediation and conflict-resolution programs, family group conferences, victim-impact panels, victim–offender mediation, circle sentencing, and community reparative boards.
Family Group Conferences Family group conferences (FGCs) are facilitated discussions that allow those most affected by a particular crime—the victim, the offender, and the family and friends of both—to discuss the impact of the crime and decide how the offender should be held accountable for it (Umbreit 2000). FGC originated in New Zealand as a way to address the failures of traditional juvenile justice. It incorporates indigenous Maori values that emphasize the roles of family and community in addressing wrongdoing (McGarrell 2001). Australia subsequently adopted the concept and has implemented several FGC models. Today, FGC is used extensively as a formal juvenile sanction in New Zealand and Australia and to a lesser extent in the United States (Immarigeon 1999), including communities in Florida, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Virginia (McGarrell, Olivares, and Kroovand 2000). Group conferencing follows principally from the theory of reintegrative shaming. It argues that people are generally deterred from committing crimes by two informal types of social control: conscience and fear of social disapproval (Braithwaite 1989). Braithwaite argues that the consequences imposed by family members, friends, or other individuals important to an offender are more meaningful and therefore more effective than those imposed by the legal system. As a result, the fear of being shamed by the people most intimate with an offender is the most significant deterrent to committing crime.
A typical conference begins when the victim, the offender, and the supporters of each are brought together with a trained facilitator to discuss the incident and the harm it has caused. It proceeds with the offender describing the incident and each participant describing the impact of the incident on his or her life. The purpose of this process is for the offender to face the human impact of his or her crime (Umbreit, 2000). The victim then is presented with the opportunity to express feelings, ask questions about the offense, and identify desired outcomes from the conference. All participants may contribute to the process of determining how the offender might best repair the harm. By the end of the conference, the participants must reach an agreement on how the youth can make amends to the victim and sign a reparation agreement. The agreement typically includes an apology, and it often includes a requirement that some type of restitution be made to the victim. Some agreements require youth to perform community service or call for other actions such as improving school attendance, completing homework, or performing chores at home or school (McGarrell 2001).
Although the evidence to date is somewhat limited, the existing research supports the use of group conferences as an alternative to traditional juvenile justice practices. Three formal experiments of group conferences found promising results. In the United States, an evaluation of police-run conferences in Bethlehem, Pa., found high levels of victim satisfaction and some evidence of reduced reoffending for person offenses, but not property offenses (McCold and Wachtel 1998). In Canberra, Australia, an evaluation of the Reintegrative Shaming Experiments also reported high levels of victim satisfaction and showed positive changes in the attitudes of offenders (Strang et al. 1999), but the impact of group conferences on recidivism remains under investigation. Finally, the Indianapolis Restorative Justice Experiment found that group conferences produced high levels of satisfaction among participants and promising recidivism results. The evaluation found that youths participating in conferences were significantly less likely to have been rearrested 6 months after the initial incident. The rate of rearrest was 20 percent for conferenced youths compared with 34 percent for the control group. When limited to those youths who successfully completed the diversion program (conference or control group program), 12 percent of the youths involved in conferences had been re-arrested compared with 23 percent of the control group (McGarrell, Olivares, and Kroovand 2000). Similar findings were observed at 12 months for the total sample (McGarrell 2001).
Victim-Impact Panels Victim-impact panels are forums for crime victims to explain the real-world impact of crime to offenders. Unlike group conferences, victim-impact panels do not involve direct personal contact between the offender and his/her victim. Instead, victim-impact panels generally use surrogate victims or family and friends of victims of similar experiences. The purpose of the panel is to help offenders individualize and humanize the consequences of their crimes on victims and the community (Immarigeon 1999).
Today, there is a small but growing trend in the use of victim-impact panels as a sentencing option for a variety of offenses such as property crimes, physical assault, domestic violence, child abuse, and elder abuse. Panels have been used in prison and jail settings, with parolees, and in treatment programs, defensive driving schools, and youth education programs. Offender participation in these panels is generally court ordered. Panels typically involve three or four victim speakers, each of whom spends about 15 minutes communicating his or her story in a nonjudgmental manner. Victim service organizations generally either implement the program for the court or work in collaboration with justice personnel. They provide services such as screening potential panel members, moderating the panels, and record keeping.
Research on victim-impact panels is relatively limited and contradictory, but promising. Fors and Rojek (1999) compared the rearrest rates of 834 DUI offenders who attended a victim-impact panel as part of their sentence to those who did not. The authors found that rearrest rates were lower for individuals who participated in the victim-impact panels. Moreover, the authors argue that the panels can be a cost-effective way of reducing the probability of arrest in DUI offenders. By contrast, Polacsek and colleagues conducted a randomized field experiment with 813 DWI offenders in New Mexico and measured their progress through the stages of pretest, posttest, 1-year follow-up, and 2-year follow-up. The participants were randomly assigned to a DWI school or a DWI school plus a Mothers Against Drunk Driving victim-impact panel. The authors found no difference in recidivism between the groups (Polacsek et al. 2001).
Research on victim impact panels also suggests that they are promising in terms of victim satisfaction. One evaluation of victim panelists speaking to convicted drunk drivers collected 1,784 individuals who either participated in a victim impact panel or did not. The study found that panelists scored similar to nonvictims on measures of self-esteem, locus of control, hostility, and well-being. Moreover, the panelists were less angry at the offender compared with nonpanelists. These results suggest that panelists benefit from participation (Mercer, Lorden, and Lord 1994).
Victim–Offender Mediation Victim–offender mediation is a process that provides victims the opportunity to meet their offenders in a safe and structured setting for dialog, negotiation, and problem solving (Umbreit and Greenwood 2000). The goal of this process is twofold. The first is to hold the offenders directly accountable for their behavior, learn the full impact of their actions, and develop plans for making amends to the person or persons they violated. The second goal is to foster a sense of empowerment for the victim. Overall, this process is designed to develop empathy in the offender (which can help prevent future criminal behavior) and address the emotional and informational needs of the victim.
Mediation programs have been used for more than 20 years for various conflict situations. Today there are more than 300 victim programs throughout the United States and more than 700 in Europe (Umbreit et al. 2000). Although these programs vary substantially, all victim–offender mediation programs share one unique feature: the purpose of victim–offender mediation is not to determine guilt (generally, guilt has already been determined in another forum), rather it is to teach the offender to accept responsibility and repair harm. The mediation session or sessions involve a dialog between the victim and the offender, facilitated by a professional mediator. The purpose of dialog is to actively involve the victim and the offender in repairing (to the degree possible) the emotional and material harm caused by the crime. It also provides an opportunity for both victims and offenders to discuss offenses and express their feelings and for victims to get answers to their questions. Finally, the dialog presents an opportunity for victims and offenders to develop mutually acceptable restitution plans that address the harm caused by the crime. More than 95 percent of victim–offender mediation sessions result in a signed restitution agreement (Umbreit and Greenwood 2000). However, research has consistently found that the restitution agreement is less important to crime victims than the opportunity to express their feelings about the offense directly to the offenders (Umbreit and Greenwood 2000).
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