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Restorative Justice

What Is Restorative Justice?, What Does Restorative Justice Look Like In Practice?, How Widespread Is Interest In Restorative Justice?

As the American criminal justice system enters the twenty-first century it continues to be faced with numerous unresolved problems. While some advocate greater retribution and harsher penalties, others continue to believe in the importance of rehabilitating criminals and preventing further crime. These conflicting views have led to an increasing lack of clarity about the basic purpose of sentencing. Is it meant to rehabilitate and change offender behavior? Are criminal sentences meant to deter others from committing crimes? Or should the purpose of sentencing be simply to incapacitate, by removing, the criminal from circulation in society for a set period of time?

Crime victims have traditionally been given virtually no legal standing in the process of doing justice in American courts, even though the justice system exists because individual citizens have been hurt by criminal behavior. Victims of crime feel increasingly frustrated and alienated by the current system of justice. The crime is against "the state" and state interests drive the process of doing justice. Individual crime victims are left on the sidelines with little, if any, input. Crime victims frequently feel twice victimized. First, by the offenders. Second, by the criminal justice system that their tax dollars are paying for. For many crime victims their encounter with the justice system leads to increasing frustration and anger as they are largely ignored, often not even provided with information about the process, court date changes, and the final disposition of the case. Rarely do criminal justice professionals take the time to listen to the fears and concerns of crime victims, seek their input, or invite their participation in holding an offender accountable.

Another problem facing the U.S. criminal justice system is that increasingly harsh punishments have failed to change criminal behavior. If severe punishment and incarceration were effective, America would be one of the safest societies in the world. Many citizens and politicians believe the United States is too lenient with criminals. The fact is, however, that more citizens are locked up in prisons in America, per capita, than in any developed nation in the world other than Russia. In a similar vein, sentences in the United States are far in excess of other democratic Western nations. The United States is the only developed nation to routinely advocate and carry out capital punishment.

Finally, the skyrocketing cost of corrections, and incarceration specifically, is driving a growing number of legislatures and policymakers to reconsider the wisdom of the current retributive system of justice, which relies so heavily upon incarceration, while largely ignoring the needs of crime victims.

The public debate around issues of crime and punishment is often driven by political leadership embracing the conservative or liberal solutions of the past. A significant new development in our thinking about crime and justice is the growing international interest in restorative justice theory (Bazemore and Umbreit; Galaway and Hudson; Van Ness and Strong; Zehr). Restorative justice offers a fundamentally different framework for understanding and responding to crime and victimization. Restorative justice emphasizes the importance of elevating the role of crime victims and community members, holding offenders directly accountable to the people they have violated, restoring the emotional and material losses of victims, and providing a range of opportunities for dialogue, negotiation, and problem solving, which can lead to a greater sense of community safety, conflict resolution, and closure for all involved.

In contrast to the offender-driven nature of our current systems of justice, restorative justice focuses upon three client groups: crime victims, offenders, and community members. It represents a growing international movement with a relatively clear set of values, principles, and guidelines for practice, although still lacking a comprehensive plan to fully replace our current systems of juvenile and criminal justice. This new theory is based upon many old-fashioned principles and it is gaining support among a growing number of correctional policymakers and practitioners, victim advocates, court officials, and law enforcement officials. At its best, restorative justice truly represents a unique way of responding to crime through more active involvement of crime victims and the community. It goes far beyond the traditional liberal and conservative positions of the past by identifying underlying truths and joint interests of all of those concerned about crime policy in a democratic society.


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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law