The criminal justice system of the United States is a punitive system designed to hold individuals who have committed crimes accountable to the state. Within this system, “accountable” is synonymous with “punishment.” Because the criminal justice system is focused almost exclusively on the person who committed the crime and the punishment that person should receive, those who are most affected by the crime are alienated from the process. Too often, the needs of the victim and the communities of both the victim and offender are left unmet, and the psychological wounds created by the crime are left unattended to. For this reason, victims, offenders and members of their communities often experience increased trauma as a result of the criminal justice system. Many people with experience in the criminal justice system — victims, offenders, judges, lawyers, prosecutors, probation and parole officers, prison staff, etc. — believe the processes of the criminal justice system deepens societal wounds and conflicts with peace building without contributing to the healing process. Restorative justice seeks to address the needs of all parties involved in a crime — the victim’s and members of his or her community as well as the offender’s and the members of his or her community.

Victims’ Needs

Restorative justice is particularly concerned with meeting the needs of the victim — the needs the criminal justice system largely neglects.

Victims need the following from justice:

  1. Information. Victims of crimes are left with many unanswered questions regarding the details and context of the crime. This lack of information can become a barrier to restoring normalcy to their day-to-day lives.
  2. Truth-telling. Victims often need to tell their truth about a crime. They need for the offender to understand the harm his or her actions caused in the victim’s life. Crime can upend a person’s sense of normalcy and trust in the world. Having the opportunity to express this to the person or persons who caused the harm can be a critical element to transcending the experience.
  3. Empowerment. Because the criminal justice system is not a victim-focused process but rather an offender-focused process, the victims of crime re-experience the loss of control and power throughout the criminal justice process. Restorative justice seeks to restore a sense of power to victims by involving them in their own case.
  4. Restitution. Victims often desire restitution from offenders but are rarely afforded the opportunity to participate in a restitution process. Whether a symbolic gesture of restitution or actual restoration of losses, restitution allows the victim to experience the offender’s attempt to right the wrong and assume ownership of the wrongdoing.

Offenders’ Needs

Restorative justice also addresses the needs of the offenders who need a justice system that addresses their needs.

Offenders need the following from justice:

  1. Accountability. Restorative justice addresses the need for accountability in the following ways:
    1. Addresses the harm caused by the offender’s actions
    2. Encourages empathy and responsibility
    3. Addresses shame and provides a process for transcending it
  2. Transformation and healing. 
    1. Restorative justice provides a process for the offender to heal from the harms that have been done to him or her that may have been contributing factors to the offending behavior.
    2. Restorative justice creates opportunities for the offender to access treatment for addictions or problems that may be at the core of destructive behavior.
    3. Restorative justice seeks to enhance personal competencies that may help the offender heal or transcend previous harms done to him or her.
  3. Support and integration from the community. Restorative justice creates a space for the community to communicate to the offender their conditions for re-integration and support for doing so.
  4. Temporary restraint. Restraint from the individual or community may be necessary. Restorative justice seeks to provide for this need while still respecting the humanity of the offender.

Community’s Needs

Community members are often important stakeholders as secondary victims. Community members may have responsibilities to the victims, offenders and to themselves.

Communities have the following needs from justice:

  1. Attentions to their concerns as victims. Communities often experience the ripple effect of a crime long after the justice process has come to completion. For instance, community members may no longer feel safe in their own neighborhood; businesses that have been victims of crime may have closed, leaving the community without their services; public property may have been vandalized leaving the community without the resources they once had; etc. There are many ways communities experience collateral damage to crime that is largely overlooked in the justice process.
  2. Mutual accountability. Restorative justice recognizes the need for community members to have opportunities to build, or rebuild, a sense of community after a crime has been committed. They may also need to explore opportunities in a facilitated setting to discover mutual accountability with the victim and / or offender.
  3. Foster healthy communities. Restorative justice encourages communities to assume responsibility for the well-being of community members, including the victim of the crime and the person who committed the crime.

Outcomes of Restorative Justice 

Where the criminal justice systems perceives crime as a violation against the state, restorative justice perceives crime as a violation against people and of interpersonal relationships that creates obligations to repair the harm created by the crime. Crime creates wounds in individuals and the communities in which they live. Therefore, the person who committed the crime has a responsibility to repair that harm. However, individuals and community members also have a responsibility to the offender if previous harm has been done to him or her, as well as a responsibility to support the offender in the reparation process.

Ultimately restorative justice seeks to put right what was wronged for all parties involved. Restorative justice is centered around respect for all parties and supports the human needs of all parties.

Additional Applications

Although restorative justice originated as a means of addressing unmet needs of all parties involved in crime, it has many useful applications for the workplace, for families and for other systems of social engagement that will be explored in future articles. In all cases, when a harm has been done, the most peaceful means of addressing harm is to ask the following questions:

  1. Who has been harmed?
  2. What does this person need as a result of the harm?
  3. Whose obligation is it to prepare the harm?
  4. Who has a stake in the situation?
  5. What is the process that can involve all stakeholders in finding a solution?

By asking these questions and seeking to answer them, we create a paradigm shift in how we think about crime and punishment, and we engage new thinking about our responsibilities to one another.

Robyn Short is a mediator with expertise in transformative mediation and restorative justice models for dispute resolution. Whether in a corporate, nonprofit, academic or home environment, Robyn assists parties in discovering the root causes of their conflicts, so they may transform their relationships and create new and productive paths forward individually and as teams. Robyn helps organizations through mediation, facilitation, on-site conflict training seminars, leadership training and dialogue circles. Learn more at www.RobynShort.com.