An Essay on Restorative Justice

The Well of College Papers and Essays will not be going dry any time soon, for I have made good use of Google Drive throughout my education.

I am researching for a new piece; thought I’d share this in the meantime and jump head-first into the controversial! Feel free to comment your thoughts.

Note: If you are interested in restorative justice, I recommend reading Changing Lenses by Howard Zehr

Restorative Justice as an Alternative for Juvenile Offenders

The outlook for the American Criminal Justice System is bleak. The “land of the free” has the most bloated rate of incarceration in the world, surpassing that of countries whose policies we look down upon as archaic and inhumane. As distressing as this fact is in and of itself, the fact that it applies to juveniles is even more disturbing. Oddly enough, considering that the United States is often said to have been founded on “Christian” values, forgiveness is not our strong suit when it comes to criminal behavior. Society wants to believe that circumstance, inequality, and life chances are irrelevant, that there are no similarities between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” and that we all get what we deserve.

This desire to reject nuance is what causes us to be so focused on retribution, doling out punitive sentences that, in many cases, accomplish nothing. The retributive model of justice that we have had in place for so long does nothing to address the needs of the victims, the communities, or the offenders.

Restorative Justice is a model that has been in use for quite some time across the globe and is widely hailed for its effectiveness in doing what our system cannot in its current form: addressing the needs of the victim, the offender, and the community. Certain elements of this model have been put into place in the justice system in different forms in the United States. New Zealand uses restorative methods exclusively for juveniles. The following is a brief analysis of these programs and what research has revealed about their effectiveness.

One of the first lines of institutional defense that juveniles will face in America will be at school. Restorative justice contains a wide enough set of principles that they can be applied in this setting as well as in the justice system (in addition to other settings, such as the workplace). Even in schools, we begin our “eye for an eye” form of justice, where behaving badly results in punishment via removal of some privilege, or removal of the child from class and into detention. The problem with this is that responding to harm with harm creates feelings of anger, resentment, and indignation (Mullet, p. 157, 2014).

The child therefore does not think about what they have done wrong and the effect it has had on whomever they have harmed; they think about themselves.

This is truly a counterproductive message, and it explains why so often children who are bullied later become bullies themselves. Victims will often become victimizers because they felt powerless. Responding to someone who has victimized another person by “victimizing them back” creates an awful cycle. It does not help the victim, it does not help the victimizer, and it degrades the harmony of the whole classroom. It is a waste of time in terms of improving the overall situation and healing victims.  

When observing the criminal justice system, we see even more dire consequences of the retributive focus. Simply put, this system does not work for juveniles (and very often not for adults, either). In her research, Tsui outlined the main flaws of the system as it exists without restorative principles:

“Its inability to affectively address recidivism, its high cost, its failure to account for the decreased juvenile culpability, and its focus on the offenders rather than the victims of crime” (Tsui, p. 641, 2014).

Statistics from the Department of Juvenile Justice have shown that “Over half of the juveniles leaving Department of Juvenile Justice facilities are re-incarcerated either in juvenile or adult facilities.” (Tsui, p. 641, 2014). To give an example of the cost of the juvenile justice system to the taxpayer, Illinois spends over 100 million per year for its state juvenile justice department (Tsui, p. 643, 2014). Additionally, the law has been slowly catching up to the fact that juveniles have diminished culpability for their actions due to the fact that their brains are still developing impulse control and understanding, still in the process of gaining social life experience. Unfortunately, very young juveniles can still be tried as adults and sentenced to death or life without parole for a homicide charge in some states to this day (Tsui, p. 645, 2014). Finally,

The victim plays nearly no role in the justice process other than that of a witness if needed by the prosecution. There are times when victims are able to make an “impact statement” in court, but other than that they are left to their own devices when it comes to the aftermath of being victimized.

Restorative Justice is a set of principles stating that the main objectives to focus on in order to achieve true justice are the needs of the victim, the offender, and the community.

When a crime is committed against one person, others also feel the effects of it. For example, if a home is burglarized, not only do the homeowners have to deal with loss of property and their feelings of safety, their neighbors do as well. In an area where this type of crime is common, the entire community is negatively affected. Restorative Justice would try to identify what was going on with the burglar in order to do what he did: is he out of a job? Does he have an addiction? Is his community providing enough resources to those in need? Even more so, the focus is on taking responsibility for one’s own actions; the offender is encouraged to apologize and accept responsibility to their victim or victims. They are encouraged to offer them any honest explanation that the victim might want from them.

Some common methods that use the principles of restorative justice are victim-offender mediation, family group conferencing, and circles (Tsui, p. 638, 2014). Victim-Offender mediations are peaceful, productive confrontations between victims (or the families of victims in cases of homicide) and offenders with a professionally trained mediator to help them through it.

Victims have often reported feeling a regained sense of power from these confrontations since they are able to voice the effects that the crime has had on them and, sometimes, get some sort of explanation from offenders. Offenders have reported feeling a much higher level of empathy for their victims, which most definitely correlates with preventing recidivism.

Family group conferencing is similar to victim- offender mediation except the families of both the victim and offender are involved. Together, they hash out a solution to the problem and try to repair the harm that was done. Circles, again, are similar to both of the above except that an even wider amount of people are involved: victim, offender, their families, close friends, and community members.

Are restorative justice methods more effective than our typical punitive methods of justice? Studies seem to suggest that they are. Specifically, studies have shown that,

“Low-level juvenile offenders are less likely to reoffend if, rather than being incarcerated, they are allowed to remain within their communities and are given access to community based programs” (Tsui, p. 641, 2014).

Additionally, Bergseth & Bouffard noted that,

“Whereas individual evaluations have produced an inconsistent picture in terms of the effectiveness of RJ programs in recidivism reduction, meta-analyses consistently support reduced recidivism among participants in programs that include restorative components, with effect sizes including .03, .07, .26, and as high as .30 among studies with stronger methodological characteristics” (Bergseth & Bouffard, p. 1055, 2013).

Of course, it is not possible to say with complete certainty who will and will not recidivate, but the signs suggest that restorative justice is, at the absolute least, not inferior to the department of justice in this area. It is also interesting to note that studies suggest that violent offenders respond better to the restorative process (recidivate less) than property offenders (Bergseth & Bouffard, p. 1058, 2013). Those who have conducted these studies warn that there needs to be more studies with larger sample sizes, but it is still worth noting.

In the economics area, community programs have also been found to be less expensive than incarceration (Tsui, 644, 2014).

And finally,

Victims who have had the chance to participate in restorative processes say they feel much more empowered and less fear of being victimized in the future (Tsui, p. 646, 2014).

Mass incarceration is one of the most pressing social problems that we face in the United States at this time, and this unfortunately applies to juveniles. Continuing an ineffective system through another generation, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and hardship that comes with a criminal record, is insanity. The justice system is broken, predicated on a flawed idea of retribution, irrevocably corrupted by politics, and blighted with race and class inequality. Society is quite polarized, but one thing we should be able to come to a consensus on is the welfare of our youth. The future will be decidedly bleak if we do not!


Bergseth, K. J., & Bouffard, J. A. (2013). Examining the Effectiveness of a Restorative Justice Program for Various Types of Juvenile Offenders. International Journal Of Offender Therapy & Comparative Criminology, 57(9), 1054-1075

Mullet, J. H. (2014). Restorative Discipline: From Getting Even to Getting Well. Children & Schools, 36(3), 157-162.

Tsui, J. C. (2014). Breaking Free of the Prison Paradigm: Integrating Restorative Techniques Into Chicago’s Juvenile Justice System. Journal Of Criminal Law & Criminology, 104(3), 634-666.

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