What is “Restorative Justice” and How Does it Impact Individuals Involved in Crime?

A question that we are often asked at the National Center on Restorative Justice (NCRJ) is “how does restorative justice differ from more mainstream approaches to justice-making in the criminal justice system and beyond?”

At its core, restorative justice defines “justice” in a radically different way than conventional criminal justice responses. Rather than justice as “punishment,” restorative justice conceives of justice as “repair” to the harm caused by crime and conflict. Understanding and responding to the needs of each involved party and the broader community is central to the collective creation of a just outcome.

In order to better understand this shift, we ask that you engage in a quick reflective exercise that we often facilitate with our students.

First, we ask that you reflect for a moment on a time that you became aware of a crime having been committed in your community. What were your needs as a community member? What was most important to you in that moment?

When we pose this question to students in our courses and trainings, we receive remarkably consistent responses. We hear, “I needed to feel safe again” or “I wanted to feel like I can trust the people in my community.” Some also express a need to understand why the crime took place or what led to the incident and to form a plan for how the community can prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future.

Next, we ask you to think back on a time that you experienced significant harm. Maybe you were the victim of a crime or maybe it was an instance in your personal life where you were wronged by another person. What were your needs at that time?

Again, responses to this question are generally consistent. We hear answers such as “I needed the person who harmed me to know how it had impacted my life. I needed to know that he wouldn’t do it again to me or anyone else” or “I wanted to know that she understood what she had done and that she was sorry.” Some also express a need to have their questions answered. We also hear many practical needs for reparations, such as “I needed someone to fix the damage to my property.” Rather than a need for the person who caused the harm to be punished, what we hear are needs for information, validation of their experience and pain, assurance that it will not happen again, repairs, and an apology.

Finally, we ask that you think back on a time that you caused harm to another person. Maybe you committed a crime, or maybe you hurt someone, intentionally or not, through your words or actions. What were your needs?

When we ask this question, we again hear remarkably consistent responses. Many people say, “I needed to be able to apologize and do something to try to make it right.” Others express, “I needed to know that this one incident wouldn’t define me. That I would be seen as a whole person outside this one harmful behavior” or “I needed to share with the person I hurt about what was going through my mind at that time. I wanted to be understood.”

What we glean from this exercise is that there are some common human needs experienced in the wake of crime—needs for safety, understanding, validation, information, apology, and repair. These are needs that so often go completely unmet by our mainstream punitive justice responses, which are concerned primarily with assigning guilt and doling out punishments.

By bringing the involved parties together in a safe and voluntary dialogue with well-trained facilitators, restorative justice creates an opportunity for those human needs following crime to be met. It offers a more holistic and humanizing view of what it means to pursue justice.

The impact of this approach is evident in its outcomes including reduced recidivism and increased satisfaction on the part of all involved parties, particularly the harmed party or victim. Because of this positive impact, the use of restorative justice is rapidly expanding in criminal justice systems around the United States and the world.

Of course, restorative justice will not be an appropriate option for all incidents of harm. It is a voluntary process and both the harmed party and responsible party need to engage willingly. Furthermore, it is only effective when the responsible party is taking responsibility. It does not have a mechanism for determining guilt. Restorative justice processes should always be guided by well-trained facilitators who first take the time to meet individually with all involved parties and determine that no further harm will be caused by bringing those involved together in dialogue.

Historically, in the United States, restorative justice has primarily been used for minor offenses or juveniles. However, research has shown that restorative justice is more effective for crimes that are considered more severe including felony-level offenses. Therefore, it is NCRJ’s position that restorative approaches should be an option for any case in which the responsible and harmed parties feel that a restorative justice process would be helpful to their own healing journeys and the process can be carried out safely with the support of well-prepared facilitators.
Dove resting in hands.
Image created by Cleo Dunsmore Buchanan

Restorative justice can be used across the spectrum of criminal justice interventions. It is often used as a diversion, with cases being referred directly by police officers or judges. It is also sometimes used alongside conventional criminal justice procedure, including during a prison sentence or upon reentry from incarceration. Many restorative justice programs also accept direct community referrals, allowing the criminal justice system to be bypassed entirely. 

We encourage you to learn more about this promising approach to justice reform. NCRJ is a partnership between Vermont Law School, the University of Vermont, the University of San Diego, and the U.S. Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance. NCRJ is funded by a federal grant to serve as the premier education, training, and research location for the advancement of restorative justice. If you are interested in learning more about restorative approaches to justice-making, please be in touch and consider one of our educational or training offerings.

Visit the NCRJ Art Gallery to view art created by individuals who have participated in NCRJ’s “Reimagining Justice” virtual restorative justice art show. These art submissions are depictions of what restorative justice means to them.

If your jurisdiction is in need of training or technical assistance, or if you know of a community that would benefit from this type of assistance, please contact BJA NTTAC at BJANTTAC@ojp.usdoj.gov and we can connect you to the appropriate training, assistance, TTA partner, and/or resources.

If you are interested in submitting the work of your organization or jurisdiction for consideration in a future TTA Today blog post or in obtaining information related to a particular topic area, please email us at BJANTTAC@ojp.usdoj.gov.

Points of view or opinions on BJA NTTAC’s TTA Today blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice, BJA, or BJA NTTAC.