The Effectiveness of Restorative Justice Practices

This paper explores the overall effectiveness of four restorative justice practices, including victim-offender mediation, family group conferences, healing and sentencing circles, and community restorative boards. These methods are based on the philosophy of restorative justice which suggests that the crime is not only a violation of rules but also an act that has a long-lasting adverse impact on the victim, offender, and the broader community.

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The reviewed theory hypothesizes that face-to-face communication between the victim and the offender may help to mitigate such influence and allow the offender to repair the harm and restore his/her moral standing in the community. The assessment of the restorative practices’ effectiveness is based on the review and analysis of studies that explored either primary or secondary data and revealed how the participants perceived such practices and the long-term effects of rearrest and reoffense it had. Overall, this paper found that victim-offender mediation and family group conferences are more effective as restorative justice practices than healing and sentencing circles and community restorative boards.

Abstract

Restorative justice is a relatively new approach to justice that differs from its conventional version by its vision of the crime as an act that causes extensive harm, including moral suffering, rather than a mere violation of the established laws. This philosophy suggests that the stakeholders of crime are the victim, the offender, and the community because the harm adversely affects the victim and reduces his or her participation and contribution to society.

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Restorative justice is not just a philosophy that offers a new perspective on crime but a novel approach to addressing misconduct through specific practices. At the modern stage of its development, restorative justice uses four types of models, including victim-offender mediation, family group conferences, healing and sentencing circles, and community restorative boards. These practices have different procedures but they also share some common aspects. Specifically, all four restorative justice principles seek to create opportunities for the victim to restore his/her pre-crime state of mind by stopping the possible self-blame and forgiving the offender. In turn, the offender is encouraged to realize the impact of his/her crime, repair the harm inflicted upon the community and the victim, and restore his/her moral standing within society. The community can also actively participate by addressing the crime fairly. The theory of restorative justice suggests that all practices should be effective because such a type of justice does not simply punish the offender but also helps to address the long-term adverse effects of the crime on the victim and repair the damages to the broader community. However, studies reveal that while such practices as victim-offender mediation and family group conferences are effective, healing and sentencing circles and community restorative boards are less so.

Restorative Justice Theory

Restorative justice is a novel and innovative approach stemming from values and principles that differ from those of traditional criminal justice. Gerkin, Walsh, Kuilema, and Borton (2017) indicate that the current criminal justice system stems from the assumption that any crime a person commits is ultimately a crime against the state, and retribution is the only effective response to such violation of the law. From the conventional perspective, the crime is gross misconduct that breaks an established system of norms and rules, and such an act requires the application of predefined sanctions to punish the violator. However, restorative justice offers a competing philosophy of viewing the crime as an act that pertains to multiple parties. According to Gerkin, Walsh, Kuilema, and Borton (2017), the difference between restorative and traditional justice is that the former views and assesses the crime by the harm inflicted while the latter focuses on the fact of breaking the state-established rules and norms. Therefore, restorative justice is a philosophy offering specific practices that differ profoundly from the conventional justice approaches.

The restorative justice theory suggests that this type of philosophy has specific goals and involves the parties that are disregarded in terms of the traditional approach used in courts. Gerkin et al.(2017) explain that the ultimate aim of restorative justice is to restore the pre-crime state of mind of the parties involved, repair the harm, and prevent the recurrence of such misconduct in the future. Therefore, unlike the conventional justice system, the restorative type does not intend to simply punish the violator. Instead, it aims to mitigate the impact that the crime has had. Shapland (2016) indicates that the method used for repairing the harm that the offender has inflicted upon the victim is communication that the criminal justice parties may receive during any stage of the process in many U.S. states. Besides, restorative justice and its underlying practices are based on specific implications from psychology and criminology. According to Shapland (2016), the victims usually perceive the crime through the lens of self-blame and reproach because they believe that if they had not committed a certain action in the past, the harm they suffered from the offender might not have happened. Moreover, such a psychological reaction may make the person emotionally unstable and insufficiently beneficial to society, which in turn contributes to the appearance of negative emotions in other members of the community and members of the victim’s family (Shapland, 2016). As a result, even if the traditional justice system applies sanctions such as imprisonment to the offender, the consequences of the crime that he or she committed will remain unresolved because the victim and the community will still be affected. The self-blame of the victim, the negativity toward the law violator, and reduced participation of the community will not be addressed through the conventional perception of and reaction to the crime. On the other hand, restorative justice suggests that it is vital to provide a contextually broader response to a crime, to ensure the communication between the offender and the victim, and most importantly, to provide the opportunity for forgiveness (Shapland, 2016). The concept of forgiveness is one of the most fundamental aspects of restorative justice and the associated practices because it allows the offender to forgive himself or herself. It also helps the victim forgive the offender by clarifying the aspects that might have been causing self-blame due to some of the crime-related information remaining unknown (Shapland, 2016). Therefore, restorative justice does not simply react to the crime but also ensures that there are no unaddressed adverse impacts it has caused.

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Considering the philosophy and goals of restorative justice, it is important to identify its stakeholders. Similar to the traditional criminal justice system, restorative justice also involves offenders and victims, but in addition, it considers another critically important element, which is the community (Tsui, 2014). The perception of these elements is unique from the perspective of restorative justice, which also determines various practices that stem from its philosophy. First, while this system also views the offenders as those who broke the rules, it suggests that the severity of the crime should be determined by assessing the scope of the harm inflicted (Gerkin, et al., 2017). Besides, restorative justice believes that the offender is likely to experience self-blame, too, and it is important to create opportunities for this party’s self-forgiveness through communication (Shapland, 2016). Secondly, the victim is another element of the restorative justice system, which is similar to the traditional approach to justice. However, the novel philosophy suggests that those who suffered from the offender’s actions do not only experience harm at the moment of the crime’s execution. Instead, the post-offense effects are long-term because the person may blame himself or herself for not doing something different before the crime to avoid it, ask questions that cannot be answered without communication with the offender, become aggressive, and less useful to the community (Shapland, 2016). Therefore, restorative justice acknowledges that the victim does not stop experiencing adverse effects of the crime immediately after the justice system applies sanctions to the offender. Finally, the new approach to criminal justice views the community as an essential element in assessing and responding to the crime. Shapland (2016) indicates that crime affects the community both by reducing the victim’s participation in it due to post-offense effects and by spreading stress among people through media channels. As a result, after the offender commits a crime, he or she gets separated from the community because of people’s perception of his/her low morals. Overall, restorative justice aims to create situations that would help these three elements cooperate and communicate to eventually repair the harm inflicted by the crime, address self-blaming in the victim and the offender, and allow the offender to return to the community successfully.

Restorative Justice Practices, Their Effectiveness, and Impacts

Restorative justice does not only provide a new perspective on crime, offenders, victims, and sanctions, but it also offers specific practices that help to achieve the goals of the system. The methods developed for the implementation of this novel philosophy in justice are based on the need to create opportunities for communication between the parties, restore their pre-crime states of mind, and repair the offender's moral and ethical statuses in the community. At the current state of its development, restorative justice uses four main practices, namely victim-offender mediation, family group conferences, healing and sentencing circles, and community restorative boards.

Victim-Offender Mediation

The first and most common restorative justice practice is victim-offender mediation. According to Gerkin et al. (2017), this method was first developed in the 1970s, when justice scholars began to consider victims as more important elements of the criminal justice process rather than those who merely suffered because of the offender. The victim-offender mediation practice is the simplest among the models used in restorative justice. It involves creating a secure setting for the offender and the victim to meet, become acquainted in real life, and discuss the possible ways of agreeing on what justice is (Gerkin et al., 2017). An essential element of this practice is a professionally trained mediator who helps to guide the conversation in a manner that would help to ensure the parties’ mutual forgiveness and assist them in reaching a possible agreement on the definition of justice. At the same time, Tsui (2014) indicates that since the community is one of the restorative justice elements, family or community members may also sometimes participate in the victim-offender mediation to repair the harm and discuss the required justice.

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This practice is an alternative to the conventional justice method of assessing the crime and deciding on the sanction for the law violator. In restorative justice, no judge makes subjective and objective decisions based on the offense. Instead, it is the victim who plays a central role in mediation, clarifies the crime-related questions that used to be unanswered, and expresses the demands or requests that should be met to repair the damage and restore justice. Furthermore, the offender participates in the discussion, too (Tsui, 2014). The victim-offender mediation intends to produce specific tangible and intangible outcomes. Whereas the forgiveness of the offender and clarification of the unanswered questions are the intangible results, the written agreement on the plan to restore justice is a tangible one (Gerkin et al., 2017). Therefore, although the trained mediator plays a central role in guiding the discussion, this practice seeks to empower both the offender and the victim by helping them define what justice is in every particular situation while simultaneously restoring their pre-offense state of mind.

The effectiveness of the victim-offender mediation practice in restorative justice is subjectively and objectively high, which is evident from the studies dedicated to this method. According to Shapland (2016), the analysis of one of the studies on the topic revealed that in the interviews after the mediation, two-thirds of the victims indicated that the communication with the offender helped them feel better. One-third of the respondents informed that they did not feel any changes, and only 2% stated that they began to feel even worse. Overall, a third of the victims participating in this restorative justice practice indicated that they began to feel more secure, 45% felt no effect, and only 9%felt more insecure after the communication (Shapland, 2016). Some studies also focus on the effects of victim-offender mediation on the offender. Specifically, Shapland (2016) indicates that over 50% of law violators felt better after the conversation, every tenth did not feel changes, and only 7%could not identify their feelings. Therefore, victim-offender mediation is generally an effective practice that is beneficial to both parties, which is evident from the large share of people who reported its positive implications.

Such data suggest that the most likely reason for such positive outcomes is the security setting and the communication itself. Specifically, from the perspective of victims, life after the exposure to the offense may include the fear of repeated aggression, thoughts of unfairness and revenge, and the lack of knowledge of information related to the offender’s motivation and circumstances. However, when knowing that they are safe during the mediation, they can ask the questions they need to be answered and reassure themselves by seeing that the offender does not threaten them. Similarly, before the mediation, the offender may blame himself or herself for the crime and harm caused to the victim or be afraid to attempt to repair it due to the fear to intimidate the victim further. However, the guided conversation in a secure setting eliminates such fears and creates favorable opportunities for attempting to repair the damage, including by following the requests or demands of the victims. As a result, the moral needs of both the offender and the victim are often similar, which is revealed during the victim-offender mediation, and the assumed positive outcomes for every party are confirmed by evidence-based findings from the studies on restorative justice practices.

Family Group Conferences

The second practice used in restorative justice is family group conferences. This method is fundamentally similar to victim-offender mediation, but the difference between the two is a more thorough involvement of the community and greater opportunities for the offender to restore his/her moral status. O’Connor and Peterson (2014) explain that the family group conferences method originates from New Zealand, where Maori tribes used a similar approach to solve conflicts among the members of the tribe. According to Tsui (2014), it is based on the guided communication between the victim and the offender, but the setting also requires the presence of family members and friends of each of the parties as well as other community members that support either side. Therefore, this practice has two objectives. On the one hand, it intends to create a secure environment for the victim to re-establish the feeling of safety and the pre-crime state of mind, allowing the offender to repair the harm caused and for the two sides to agree on the way to restore justice (Tsui, 2014). On the other hand, family group conferences aim to establish a connection between the offender and the community affected by the crime.

Unlike the traditional criminal justice procedure, family group conferences do not intend to simply punish the offender for his/her gross misconduct. Instead, according to O’Connor and Peterson (2014), this practice focuses on the emotional aspect of the crime. It means that the parties that participate in a conference obey the guidance of the trained professional, and all community members present in the setting, including the victim, explain how the crime affected them and what they believe to be an effective way to restore justice. In turn, the goal of the offender in this practice is to explain all aspects of the crime to the community and the victim and attempt to receive their forgiveness (Shapland, 2016). Therefore, the goals of all parties involved in the crime may be attained during the family group conferences.

Multiple studies focused on the family group conferences' restorative justice practice and provided evidence demonstrating its overall effectiveness and broader benefits as compared to traditional justice. First, O’Connor and Peterson (2014) indicate that the involvement of parents of the offenders during the family group conferences is more proactive than during the conventional justice process. It means that since the offenders are likely to blame themselves for the crime, the active participation of their family members might reduce the chances of their repeated aggression in the future.

Secondly, the study of restorative justice in the juvenile setting has found that 83%of young offenders supported the idea to participate in the family group conference, and 89%of those who committed a crime and participated in such a practice indicated that they were satisfied with the agreement on justice reached through the discussion (O’Connor & Peterson, 2014). Such evidence shows the substantial effect of the practice because, despite the possible fear of public exposure and shame, the offenders are interested in such a method of repairing the harm. Moreover, the high rate of agreement with the verdicts demonstrates that the offenders are determined to improve their behavior.

Thirdly, the study has revealed that the use of the family group conference in juvenile justice and school settings lead to a reduction of repeated violations. Furthermore, the decrease rate was higher by a third among those who expressed remorse, which is not demanded by the mediator (O’Connor & Peterson, 2014). Such data demonstrate that the factor of participation in the conference itself is effective, but the expression of remorse indicates a more profound realization of the harm caused by the offender, which is the predictor of behavior improvement in the future.

Finally, the study found certain subjective evidence about the family group conference practice. Specifically, the findings included parents’ belief that the participation was a positive experience and an improvement of educational outcomes for the juveniles in the school setting (O’Connor & Peterson, 2014). Although such evidence pertains to juvenile justice, similar outcomes may be expected among adults since the factors of public exposure and fear of friends and family’s judgment are likely to stimulate positive changes in behavior.

Overall, the family group conference practice is highly effective. Although it is similar to the common restorative justice method of victim-offender mediation, the involvement of family members is obligatory instead of voluntary as in the case of victim-offender mediation. Moreover, the rates of satisfaction with the practice and its positive outcomes are high, which may be related to the impact of public exposure and community judgment factors that stimulate positive behavior changes.

Healing and Sentencing Circles

The third practice used in restorative justice is healing and sentencing circles. Tsui (2014) explains that this method originates from the aboriginal tribes that used it for safe discussion of issues and for solving conflicts. Unlike other practices used in the restorative system, healing and sentencing circles do not presuppose guidance from a trained, professional mediator. However, similar to other methods, such circles involve the participation of the victim, the offender, their family members, and friends. Moreover, Tsui (2014) indicates that an essential element of this restorative justice practice is the participation of the broader community that experienced harm from the crime, including police officers, judges, educational staff, and others. Healing and sentencing circles presuppose the discussion of the emotional harm that every party experienced because of the crime and the verdict that would correspond to the degree of suffering and misconduct committed. Therefore, this practice aims to empower different stakeholders of the crime to express their opinion on it and participate in the elaboration of the appropriate response. Moreover, such extensive participation of stakeholders, especially of the offender, is the key difference between this restorative justice practice, conventional justice approaches, and other restorative methods.

Healing and sentencing circles have a specific form of execution. Wilson, Olaghere, and Kimbrell (2017) describe that the process involves the initial identification of the parties related to the crime, including the victim, the offender, and community members. After that, all people enter a secluded room to establish the security of conversation and start discussing the circumstances of the misconduct and the harm they experienced. The major part of the communication focuses on elaborating a fair justice response to the crime and the strategic plan for its implementation, and another central idea is to devise an approach that would satisfy every participant in the circle (Wilson, Olaghere, & Kimbrell, 2017). Therefore, this restorative justice practice does not only aim to restore the victim’s pre-offense state of mind and create the opportunities to ask questions that pertain to the crime, but it also intends to meet the needs of every party affected by the misconduct.

The effectiveness of the healing and sentencing circles practice is doubtful because studies that focused on this method did not find strong evidence proving the improved conduct of the offender or the victim’s satisfaction. The study by Wilson, Olaghere, and Kimbrell (2017) found that the overall effectiveness of healing and sentencing circles in terms of addressing the goals of restorative justice was medium to moderate, but they could not draw firm conclusions. Such findings may stem from the involvement of multiple parties in the crime discussion and the need to reach a conclusion that would be approved by all people present in the setting. These requirements complicate the search for a compromise, reduce the empowerment of the victim and the offender, and minimize the opportunities for the offender and the victim to reach the stage of forgiveness. However, Tsui (2014) indicates that an important positive outcome of the healing and sentencing circles is the more profound involvement of the broader community. Besides, the author (Tsui, 2014) has found that in many cases, victims were interested in this method and happily agreed to participate in it. Such findings may demonstrate the victim’s internal need for the answers to some crime-related questions combined with the fear of meeting the offender. Since the practice presupposes the involvement of multiple parties, the victim may feel more determined to participate because he or she considers such a setting more secure. At the same time, the more profound involvement of the community means that the offender has a greater opportunity to repair the harm caused by his/her crime and higher chances of restoring his/her moral and social status since he or she can appeal to a greater number of community members.

Overall, the healing and sentencing circles practice is more ineffective than effective for two reasons. First, it is hard to achieve the key goal of this method, which is the mutually-agreed decision on the justice strategy, because all parties need to agree with the verdict. Secondly, the such practice reduces the attainability of the goals of restorative justice in general. Specifically, the broad discussion of the response strategy disempowers the victim and the offender, and the victim has fewer opportunities to restore his/her pre-crime state of mind by communicating with the offender in a safe setting.

Community Restorative Boards 695

The fourth and final restorative justice practice is community restorative boards. This method provides the connection between the conventional and restorative justice systems because, as indicated by Gavrielides (2007), it presupposes that the traditional court will appoint specific community members to talk with the victim and the offender. Unlike victim-offender mediation, this practice does not involve mediation by a trained professional. Instead, it presupposes the participation of volunteers from the community that was affected by the crime. However, similar to other restorative justice practices, the community restorative boards model also intends to create the opportunity for the offender to realize and repair the harm inflicted upon other parties and for the victim to restore his/her pre-crime state of mind and find answers to the crime-related questions (Gavrielides, 2007). At the same time, this method has the elements of the healing and sentencing circles because the discussion of the crime and its effects are followed by the agreement on the most suitable form of justice. Therefore, the community restorative boards practice is the most complex restorative justice method that has the elements of the other three approaches.

The practice of community restorative boards has a specific structured implementation process. According to Wilson, Olaghere, and Kimbrell (2017), it involves small groups of community members who meet with the offenders and the victims face-to-face. At the same time, those who committed a crime may participate in the process either voluntarily or by the order of the court. The key reasons for such meetings include the discussion of the crime’s circumstances, the impact that the misconduct has had on the victim and the broader community, and the creation of the opportunity for the victim to restore security and for the offender to repair harm and address its adverse influence (Wilson, Olaghere, & Kimbrell, 2017). Besides, the community restorative boards model intends to develop justice that would be fair and that would allow the offender to make reparations for the harm effectively, with every community member having to agree with the proposal. Finally, Gavrielides (2007) indicates that the method of the community restorative boards develops a specific timetable for the offender to follow the verdict and allocates a particular person to observe its implementation and provide a report after the justice is completed. Therefore, this practice involves the elements of some other restorative justice methods, but it is also unique in its community involvement in the crime discussion and its community-driven nature of consequences for the offender, who has a broad opportunity to restore his/her moral standing during the meetings.

One of the studies on the community restorative boards model provides evidence that proves the effectiveness of this practice. Specifically, Bouffard, Cooper, and Bergseth (2016) indicate that victims who participated in this restorative justice method showed a 16%decrease in the chance of becoming a victim again over five years after the first involvement. At the same time, the participation of the offenders in the study has led to a decrease in rearrests by 54%over the five years after the practice (Bouffard, Cooper, & Bergseth, 2016). However, other scholars provide different findings. Specifically, Wilson, Olaghere, and Kimbrell (2017) indicate that they could not find a strong positive correlation between the community restorative boards' practice and positive outcomes for the offender, victim, or the community. However, their research used secondary data and is a metanalysis.

Overall, the findings from the studies are contradictory, but due to the scarcity of research, they are the key evidence of the effectiveness of the practice. First, although the rate of the victim being targeted again reduced five years after the method implementation, such change does not seem to be directly correlated with the method itself. Even if the board persuaded the offender in a particular case to refrain from committing a crime again, it does not mean that the victim could not be reoffended by other offenders who did not participate in the practice. Therefore, such an outcome is more of a coincidence than a firm fact. Secondly, the reduction in the offenders’ rearrest rate demonstrates that the practice may be effective because it stimulates them to refrain from violating the law again. Overall, despite the lack of research on the topic, the community restorative boards practice is more effective than ineffective based on the positive impact it has on the offenders.

Conclusion

Restorative justice provides a novel view of crime and justice by suggesting that the scope of a crime should be assessed by the impact of harm it had on different stakeholders rather than by the mere fact of the offender violating specific laws and rules. From the perspective of this justice philosophy, a crime affects both the victim and the offender, and they are likely to experience long-term emotional impacts, such as self-blame, aggression, or a feeling of revenge. Moreover, such gross misconduct influences the community, too, because the emotional distress that the victim feels reduces his or her participation in society. Restorative justice is implemented through four specific practices, including victim-offender mediation, family group conferences, healing and sentencing circles, and community restorative boards. These methods aim to create a safe environment for the victim and the offender to meet face-to-face and allow all parties affected by the crime to discuss it and its impact and develop a strategy for the offender to repair the harm inflicted. Since four practices have different implementation strategies, their effectiveness varies. As identified from the studies’ findings, victim-offender mediation and family group conferences restorative practices have the highest effectiveness while the effectiveness of healing and sentencing circles and community restorative boards is lower. Such differences may stem from the specific procedures used in these methods. The less effective practices require that all the participating parties agree on the proposed strategy of the offender's reparation of the harm. The more effective approaches, on the other hand, simply establish a secure setting to let the victim and the offender communicate about the crime, which is more in line with the overall goals of restorative justice.

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