Click on a Frequently Asked Question below to reveal the answer.
Restorative Justice is a community-based alternative to traditional criminal justice prosecution. The idea of bringing together a victim of a crime and the person who committed that crime is based on age-old values of justice, accountability, and restoration. The United Nations Working Group on Restorative Justice defines it as: “A process whereby parties with a stake in a particular offense resolve collectively to deal with the aftermath of the offense and its implications for the future.”
Traditionally when a crime is committed, the justice system has been primarily concerned with three questions:
- Who did it?
- What laws were broken?
- What should be done to punish or treat the offender?
This type of approach is considered retributive, where the intent is to get retribution or punishment for an offense committed.
Restorative justice programs emphasize a set of different questions:
- Who has been harmed?
- What is the nature of the harm resulting from the crime?
- What needs to be done to “make it right” or repair the harm?
- Who is responsible for this repair?
- How can the responsible party return to a law-abiding life?
The intent is to restore the victim and community affected by the crime as close as possible to pre-crime conditions.
Restorative justice focuses on harm to victims and community. By working collaboratively with victims, offenders, and community members to repair the harm, the aim is to restore relationships that have been broken by the offense. Restorative justice recognizes that it is not always possible to replace what a victim lost in the aftermath of an offense, but the goal is to settle the matter as much as possible. In the process, it aims to restore the offender to a law-abiding life, and repair the damage caused by the offense to the community.
The modern concept of restorative justice began in the late 1970s, largely in North America. But aboriginal societies have used these practices for hundreds of years, recognizing the harm to community that crime causes and employing restorative circles and family conferences to restore relationships. In 1996, New Zealand adopted legislation mandating the use of restorative practices in young offender cases. Many jurisdictions, including Canada, United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and European countries, have adopted restorative justice programs.
Research has shown many positive outcomes of restorative justice:
- Victims who meet with those who have offended against them are far more likely to be satisfied with the justice system’s response to their case than those who go through the traditional criminal justice process. After meeting the offenders, victims are significantly less fearful of being re-victimized.
- Offenders who meet with their victims are far more likely to complete their restitution obligation to those victims. What’s more, offenders who complete a restorative justice process are less likely to re-offend than those who don’t.
Restorative justice has the potential to meet needs that are not currently being met by the traditional justice system. The need for reconciliation and healing exists for all offenses, regardless of their severity. In fact, the experience of restorative justice often seems to be more meaningful for offenders, victims, and community members when it involves a more serious case and the loss to the victim is more profound.
In the traditional justice system, offenders are not required to accept responsibility for their actions and are not held accountable. Many offenders proceed though the system with a lawyer who speaks on their behalf. Restorative justice offers a more demanding, active, and clear opportunity for offenders to hold themselves directly accountable to the victim and the community they have harmed. Rather than being soft on crime, restorative justice requires the person who committed the offense to behave more responsibly by making amends to the victim and community. The human consequences of the offender’s behavior are dealt with more directly though restorative justice than they are in the current criminal justice system.
A Restorative Justice Panel is a group of trained community volunteers. The panel meets with the person who offended, as well as other affected parties and supporters, in a facilitated conversation about what happened and how the person responsible for the offense can make amends and move on with his or her life. The panel does not “sentence” the person who offended or assign work; rather, during the course of the conversation, activities are identified by all people participating to help the offender deepen his or her understanding of the harm, make amends to those who need it, make a positive connection with community, and make a plan to not re-offend.
- Offenses that are not categorized as intimate partner violence.
- In most cases, offenses that are misdemeanors — but the program is not restricted to these offenses.
- Offenses in which the offending party takes responsibility for his or her actions.
- Youth offenses in which a parent or guardian agrees to participate.
In a Restorative Justice Panel meeting, the agreement that results is one that must be acceptable to everyone present. If you participate in a meeting, you will have a say in what goes into the agreement and will be part of building a solution that is agreeable to you as well as to everyone else present.
A Restorative Justice Panel comprises a program staff person and trained restorative justice community volunteers who help coordinate and facilitate the meetings. Victim(s) or victim representatives are invited to attend. The offender and parents of any offender under 18, along with support people for both the victim and the person who offended, also may participate.
The first part of the meeting focuses on what happened and who was affected or harmed by the incident (crime) and how they were affected. Everyone participates in this facilitated conversation. After the group has identified all the harm caused by the incident, participants then discuss how the harm may be repaired. Again, everyone participates in this discussion. The group, including the victim and offender, then builds a contract of activities for him or her to complete that deepens the understanding of the harm, makes amends to those affected, makes a positive connection with community, and makes a plan to not re-offend. The offender then agrees to a deadline to complete the contract.
Victim participation is entirely voluntary. However, restorative justice is about bringing the offender, victim, and community together in dialogue. It will allow you to hear what was going through the offender’s mind at the time of the incident and what he or she has thought about since. Also, you will be able to tell the story of how the incident affected you, and ask questions of the offender to get information to help you understand just what happened and why.
If you are interested in participating in a restorative justice process, you can participate fully by doing an intake interview with a CJC representative and by attending the Restorative Justice Panel meeting. You also have the option to participate partially, by appointing a representative or telling your story to a staff person who may relay it to panel members and the person who offended.
To be “made whole” can mean a few different things. It can be restitution, such as receiving money to cover repairs. It may be information from the offender, with answers to questions such as “Why did you choose my house?” It can be an apology, either written or verbal. It could also be service directly for you or at a community service site. A staff person will ask you about what your expectations are from the meeting ahead of time and help you to think about what is possible.
Restorative justice is about bringing the offender, victim, and community together in dialogue. The victim is invited to participate, but it is their choice whether they elect to participate.
It may appear to be simpler to go to court. However, the restorative justice process allows you to repair the harm that you’ve caused to the community and to the victim. By taking responsibility for your actions and repairing the harm to the best of your ability, you are able to hold your head high, knowing that you have done what you could to make things better.
Participation in the program is completely voluntary for all participants. One of the primary goals of restorative justice is to increase victims’ satisfaction with the system by giving them an active role in the justice process. Every effort will therefore be made to provide victims with the information, preparation, and support they need in order to participate in a restorative justice process. But some victims may not want to participate. In such cases, a restorative justice process could still be held with others participating in the victim’s place. For example, affected parties such as a family member or a member of the community in which the incident took place could talk about the impact the crime has had on them.
Certain offenses, such as drug offenses, while being so-called “victimless” crimes, do have a dramatic effect on an entire community. In cases such as this, Restorative Justice Panel members represent the community in general and speak about the effects the crime has had on the community.
Community is defined as the “community of the incident” — family members and key support people for each party who have been affected by the offense. The community members in a restorative justice process will be specific to that particular case and focus on where the incident occurred.
Parties referred to restorative justice are encouraged to consult with attorneys if they wish. However, attorneys do not typically participate in restorative justice processes.
Experience has taught us that if people complete their contracts, they are less likely to reoffend. Therefore, every opportunity is given to the offending party to complete his or her contract. If, after given ample opportunity to complete, the offender still does not, the case is returned to whoever referred it.
The process is confidential. Participants agree to keep to themselves what they hear in a meeting. The CJC will share information with people outside the meeting, such as school personnel or probation officers, only if agreed to by the participants. However, Circles of Support and Accountability operate under a “no secrets” policy, which requires that core members report any infraction of the rules governing their release to their probation officers. COSA members will not keep a core member’s secrets, which is an important part of the agreement that core members and volunteers sign upon entering the program.
Restorative Justice Panels
Restorative Justice Panels are made up of volunteers trained in restorative practices who meet with people who have committed offenses, along with their victims and supporters, if any, to have a conversation about what happened and what the offender can do to deepen his or her understanding of the harm, make amends to those who need it, make a positive connection with community, and make a plan to not reoffend. The person who offended makes an agreement with the panel and has two to three months to complete it. This is different from community sentencing in that the process is collaborative and all must agree to the outcome.
Circles of Support and Accountability (COSAs)
Circles of Support and Accountability are groups of three volunteers and a staff person who work with a “core member” who is returning to his or her community from prison, on what is called “conditional furlough” status. The core member has completed his or her minimum sentence but still has at least a year to serve before reaching his or her maximum. Conditional furlough has been described as “incarceration within the community” since the core member is still under Department of Corrections supervision and can be returned to prison if s/he violates the rules set forth in the written furlough.
First instituted in Canada, COSAs in Vermont provide core members with a support group committed to working with them for a year to help them get back on their feet and be law-abiding citizens. While offering support in the form of rides, conversation, and understanding, they also help core members hold themselves accountable for following the rules and behaving in a pro-social manner.
Family Group Conferences
A family group conference involves a face-to-face meeting between the victim and offender. A family group conference, however, also engages a larger group of participants, which includes the support people for both victim and offender, relevant professionals, and a facilitator. All participants have an opportunity to talk about the offense, to express their feelings and concerns, and to get answers to their questions. All participants may also express opinions on how the offender should make amends. Many times the resulting agreement includes activities not only for the person who offended, but also commitments by supporters and family members to help the offender stay on the right path and complete his or her agreement.
Community Conflict Assistance
Community justice centers offer mediation services to members of the community to help resolve neighbor disputes over things like property boundaries, animal complaints, noise, and other neighborhood issues. Mediators are neutral parties who work with those in dispute to help them arrive at a mutually-agreeable solution to the problem.