What is Restorative Justice?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Restorative justice is an approach to justice that centers the roles of victims and offenders in the justice process with the goal of addressing the harm caused by crime on an individual level, instead of a more abstract government level. Instead of regarding a crime simply as a violation of the law and an act against the state, restorative justice advocates consider crimes to be acts against individuals, and they are treated as such. Many historic legal systems used this approach, and some modern systems have begun considering restorative justice in their approach to criminal law.

Man holding computer
Man holding computer

The concept can already be seen active in civil law, where people can take each other to court to sue for damages. It is also commonly employed informally in environments like the family, where it is common for whole families to cooperate on determining punishments for misbehavior and violation of house rules. Many residential facilities for people like troubled youth and psychiatric patients also use restorative justice for disciplining their members.

In a case where the principles of this approach are applied, victims have an opportunity to offer input, talking about the impact the crime had on their lives and the resolution they would like to see. Victims may be able to interact directly with offenders in a mediated environment, creating a personal connection between both parties. Offenders have an opportunity to make personal amends like apologizing or providing restitution, and they can also engage in community service and other activities to apologize to the community, as well as the victim.

Everyone is given a role in the justice process when the principles of restorative justice are used. Studies have shown that victims tend to express more satisfaction with case outcomes when this approach is utilized, both because they are offered an opportunity to participate, and because their needs are considered when punishments are meted out. Recidivism is also decreased, as offenders are made aware of the impacts of their actions on a personal level.

Communities can use restorative justice in a number of different ways. Programs promoting this approach to justice work with people like victim advocates, law enforcement, and criminal science scholars to develop a program for implementing restorative justice in their community. Allowing victims to provide input during sentencing and probation hearings is very popular in some regions, as is the possibility of mediated discussions with offenders to allow both parties a chance to communicate directly with each other.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments



@MrMoody - I think you’re missing the point. Community service is not mere symbolism; it lies at the heart of restorative justice.

Restorative justice implies that criminal acts affect the entire community. Community service is a way of making amends with the community; it’s not meant for mere show.

When I think of restorative justice I think of some of the intervention type programs on television where the offender (whether criminal or otherwise) is forced to face family members, and give and receive feedback about the impact their actions have had on the family.

It’s very personal, and touches the offender at the deepest level of their conscience. I think that’s why its effectiveness can be so long lasting.


@hamje32 - The only thing that I take issue with is the whole point of community service. If it’s a personal affront, what’s the point of making the offender do stuff like sweep leaves or anything like that?

I would take the community service component out of the equation and focus only on the interpersonal aspects of restorative justice. If you want to see an example of this kind of justice being played, just watch the small claims court TV shows.

There you have the plaintiff and defendant, one on one, in front of the judge, each telling their side of the story. It can be heart wrenching to watch sometimes, depending on the nature of the loss and the extent of the damages.


Restorative justice has its roots in the Bible, like so many of our modern laws. I don’t have chapter and verse handy but I vaguely remember statutes in the Old Testament where the offender had to pay damages to the victim.

In agricultural societies, this may have meant things like buying your neighbor an ox if you had accidentally killed the one he had, or at least providing him with monetary compensation so that he could get a new one.

With mediation restorative justice becomes deeply personal. How often in courts do we find the defendant unwilling to look their victim in the face?

I therefore agree with the article that recidivism rates would become low. If all you have to do to pay for a crime is serve some jail time and pay a fine, that’s one thing. But facing your victims must surely tear your heart out.

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