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.
- The Conflict Resolution Information Source is a searchable database of articles that includes “core knowledge” essays on key ideas in the area of peacemaking and conflict resolution. Read about restorative justice on its website. The database is a project of the Conflict Research Consortium at the University of Colorado.
- Restorative Justice Online is a comprehensive website that is a service of the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation of Prison Fellowship International, a prison ministry. The site includes a searchable library of more than 7,500 articles, links to Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed and Southern Baptist denominational resources, and links to programs around the world, organized by region and country.
- Restorative Justice Project is run by the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies at Fresno State University. It offers services and resources to apply restorative justice principles, including in the area of school discipline
- Read “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” a Nov. 15, 2000, statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Supreme Court of the United States
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United States courts
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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 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 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.
Gordon Bazemore teaches criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University. He has published extensively, and his research includes evaluating restorative justice programs at state and federal levels. He leads the Balanced and Restorative Justice Project, a federally funded juvenile justice program.
Ron Claassen is director of the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies at Fresno Pacific University and a Mennonite minister. In 2002, he spoke at the first restorative justice conference held in Israel.
Elaine Enns has been a trainer and consultant on restorative justice for almost two decades. She is part of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in Oak View, Calif.
Stephanie Hixon is executive director of the JustPeace Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation, a United Methodist center for conflict resolution. Established in 2000, JustPeace trains people in conflict transformation and restorative justice.
Kay Pranis has worked in the field of restorative justice for almost two decades. She was the restorative justice planner for the Minnesota Department of Corrections for nine years. Pranis calls the spread of restorative justice a “quiet revolution.”
Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz
Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz is director for the Mennonite Central Committee Office on Crime and Justice and co-author of The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools.
Mark Umbreit is founding director of the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota school of social work. He is also on the faculty of the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the university. Umbreit is familiar with evaluations of restorative justice.
Ted Wachtel is founder and president of the International Institute for Restorative Practices in Bethlehem, Pa., which offers graduate degrees and training in applying restorative principles in schools, criminal justice, child welfare and workplaces. Read “In Pursuit of Paradigm: A Theory of Restorative Justice,” a paper delivered by Wachtel and researcher Paul McCold at an international criminology conference in 2003.
Howard Zehr is one of the founders of the restorative justice movement. He teaches at Eastern Mennonite University, where he co-directs the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. He speaks and consults extensively on the subject. Among his many publications on the subject is the best-selling The Little Book of Restorative Justice.
Victim Offender Mediation Association
The international Victim Offender Mediation Association in St. Paul, Minn., promotes restorative justice. The 250-member association has members from all states.
Center for Public Justice
The Center for Public Justice is a Christian-democratic organization dedicated to public policy research, leadership development, and civic education.
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.
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 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 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 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.
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, 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
Nicole S. Zellweger
Nicole S. Zellweger is President of the Center for Women in Transition. The Center for Women in Transition provides tools, support and resources to help recently incarcerated women make positive choices, achieve meaningful goals and be accountable for past actions.
Janine P. Geske
Janine P. Geske, retired Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, developed a restorative justice program at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
In the West
Duane Ruth-Heffelbower practiced law before he became a Mennonite pastor. He is director of graduate academic programs for the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies at Fresno Pacific University and administrator of Victim Offender Reconciliation Program of the Central Valley.
Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real
The Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real in the Monterey, Calif., area has a Restorative Justice Commission.
RestoreJustice.com is an outreach program of the California Catholic Conference funded by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops that includes a network of diocesan-level coordinators of restorative justice/detention ministries.