Beyond crime and punishment: Restorative justice grows

A revolution is quietly taking place in criminal justice. Restorative justice, a system of legal resolution that involves the victim, offender and community, emphasizes repairing the harm caused when a crime is committed. Crime victims are part of the process of resolution, and criminals take responsibility for what they have done.


Restorative justice has grown especially in juvenile justice, where young offenders are expected to face the consequences of their crime and remedy it. Victim-offender mediation, one type of restorative justice, has grown exponentially in the past two decades. A number of states have restorative justice coalitions. And the philosophy is spreading outside criminal justice; schools are beginning to replace zero-tolerance policies with restorative justice principles. In 2007, the Chicago Public Schools formally adopted a restorative justice philosophy in the student code of conduct.

The concept is growing internationally, as well. A large study published in 2007 by the London think tank the Smith Institute showed that restorative justice reduced repeat offending and repeat imprisonment, lowered criminal justice costs and gave crime victims greater satisfaction than did conventional criminal justice. Lead researchers Lawrence W. Sherman of the University of Pennsylvania and Heather Strang of Australian National University say restorative justice, already in use in thousands of settings, is ready for broader adoption.

Restorative justice has roots in the world’s religious traditions. Religion is often seen as a source of conflict in the world today. Yet religions also offer the promise and practice of peace through their teachings. Justice is a key concern of religions, which can provide theological and institutional resources to advocate for peacemaking, reconciliation and conflict resolution. Restorative justice is even taking hold in religious institutions, which are not immune themselves to wrongdoing and conflict.

Why it matters

In the United States, one out of every 43 adults is involved in some way in the criminal justice system, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. With prison populations continuing to grow, no policy-maker would say that the justice system effectively deters crime. Restorative justice offers possibilities beyond crime and punishment. Its applications are many, and it continues to be studied for evidence of its effectiveness. It offers benefits for those who have been hurt by wrongdoing at the same time that it teaches responsibility and empathy to lawbreakers, making it both preventive and restorative.

Angles for reporters

Restorative justice is a large field that brings together criminology, social work, law and ethics. Here are some ways to approach a story:

Restorative justice has been studied in places where it’s been implemented. Check with criminologists who are familiar with the research. What do they say about what needs to be proved or disproved?

The concept has been adopted in some parts of the criminal justice system. The likeliest established applications are juvenile justice and victim assistance. These are good entry points for a local story that can link what is already being done with new developments in the field. What have local programs learned and accomplished? What are the successes and failures?

Some of the newer applications of restorative justice include:

  • School discipline
  • Defense-initiated victim outreach, in which lawyers for a criminal defendant seek to work with a crime victim within religious institutions
  • Family violence
  • Re-entry of ex-convicts into their communities after imprisonment

Are any of these efforts under way in your area? What role do religious leaders and congregations play?

Restorative justice experts point to “transitional justice” as one growing area. Transitional justice seeks to provide accountability and stable civic life in countries with histories of atrocities or abuse by authorities. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the best-known contemporary example of a country’s reckoning with crimes of its past. The U.S. has had one experience with this process. The Greensboro, N.C., Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated a 1979 killing of demonstrators. The commission made a controversial report in 2006 after two years of inquiry. In March 2007, the Greensboro City Council refused by a 5-4 vote to consider the report’s recommendations.

Additional resources

Legal resources

  • Supreme Court of the United States

    The official website of the Supreme Court of the United States posts background information about the court, as well as court decisions and arguments.

    Contact: 202-479-3000.
  • United States courts

    The website of the federal judiciary — which includes the U.S. Court of Appeals, district courts and bankruptcy courts — posts court records, judicial statistics and information on judges. Contact through the website.

  • post links to case law and texts. Contact through the website.

International sources

  • Christopher D. Marshall

    Christopher D. Marshall wrote Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime and Punishment. An expert in biblical ethics and peace theology, he teaches religious studies at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

  • Heather Strang

    Heather Strang is director of the Centre for Restorative Justice at Australian National University. She has done research in Australia and Great Britain on the effectiveness of restorative justice.

  • European Forum for Restorative Justice

    The European Forum for Restorative Justice aims to help establish and develop victim-offender mediation and other restorative justice practices throughout Europe.

  • Lawrence Sherman

    Lawrence Sherman is Director of the Institute of Criminology of the University of Cambridge. His work is internationally recognized. He co-led a decade-long study of restorative justice in multiple settings.

National sources

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • The Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast

    The Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast in Belfast, Maine, has worked with victims and offenders to seek apologies for victims and to help criminals turn their lives around.

    Contact: 207-338-2742.
  • New York State Community Justice Forum

    The New York State Community Justice Forum in Rensselaer, N.Y., provides training and assistance in community and restorative justice. The difference: Community justice works to prevent crime and promote community, while restorative justice works for reparation after a crime has been committed.

  • Pennsylvania Prison Society

    The Pennsylvania Prison Society has been working for more than 200 years on behalf of people in jail and their families. It has a restorative justice program. William M. DiMascio is the executive director.

  • Alfred Blumstein

    Alfred Blumstein is a criminologist at the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Winner of the 2007 Stockholm Prize in criminology, he is an expert on prison populations, juvenile violence and crime deterrence.

In the South

  • Marty Price

    Marty Price is a lawyer and mediator who has worked in restorative justice for two decades. He speaks and trains internationally on the subject. Price taught restorative justice in Argentina on a Fulbright grant.

  • Pamela Blume Leonard

    Pamela Blume Leonard is executive director of the Council for Restorative Justice. The CRJ is a foundation-funded program housed in the School of Social Work at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

  • Kathleen M. Mullin

    Kathleen M. Mullin is a lawyer and director of Fair Trial Initiative in Durham, N.C., which promotes better defense in death-penalty cases to ensure fairness.

  • Jayne Crisp

    Jayne Crisp is a victim advocate and crisis response trainer with experience in faith-based work. She has trained community leaders after school shootings in Littleton, Colo., and Jonesboro, Ark. She has worked for Prison Fellowship Ministries.

  • Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections

    Louisiana’s Catholic bishops spoke in favor of restorative justice policies in a 2002 pastoral statement “Let Justice and Mercy Meet.” The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections uses some restorative justice ideas and practices in its services, among them victim-offender dialogue.

    Contact: 225-925-6006.
  • Bridges to Life

    Bridges to Life is a faith-based restorative justice program based in Houston. It was started by John Sage after his sister was murdered. It works in 21 Texas prisons and one in Louisiana.

  • Marc Levin

    Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, has surveyed restorative justice in Texas. He says that contrary to popular perception, Texas can be considered a pioneer in restorative justice.

  • Baptist General Convention of Texas

    The Baptist General Convention of Texas and the University of Texas at San Antonio Office of Community and Restorative Justice have discussed developing a consortium of restorative justice leaders for discussion and research.

In the Midwest

In the West

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