The Effects of Restorative Justice in the Criminal Justice System

By Christopher Zoukis

Modern criminal justice systems, according to some critics, alienate victims and remove responsibility from criminal defendants. This gap undermines the justice aspect of criminal justice, and in the long term hurts victims and society. Increasingly, reform-minded advocates have supported restorative justice programs to close this gap and allow individuals to learn from their mistakes.  Image courtesy prx.org

Restorative justice programs focus on both prisoners and victims. To do this, an array of programs have been developed in cities across the country that employ various strategies to help prisoners see first-hand the impact of their crimes on others. While the methods used to do this are diverse, common themes include support groups for victims, group meetings that unite former prisoners and victims of crime and bringing together individuals serving jail time with their actual victims.

A Victim-Centered Approach

Unfortunately, victims of crime are often ignored in contemporary systems of criminal justice. They are the forgotten other half when a crime is dealt with in society. Restorative justice programs aim to give these victims a voice and an avenue to heal by allowing them to actively participate in the process. This allows victims to feel a higher sense of involvement in their communities, while helping them to recover in a more social and supportive setting.

Outcomes such as these are central reasons for support groups with other victims or joint meetings between victims and those responsible. Allowing victims to confront individuals and let them know the damage they have done is crucial to the healing process, according to proponents of restorative justice programs.

However, these types of programs are not only meant to help victims. In fact, supporters of restorative justice are equally committed to rehabilitating prisoners as well. The current criminal justice system minimizes the extent to which prisoners feel responsible for their actions. By not taking responsibility, nor understanding the consequences of their actions because they aren’t confronted with their victims, many individuals again resort to crime once released. This helps explain why countries such as the United States have such a high recidivism rate.

Introducing prisoners to their victims forces them to understand the consequences of their previous actions and internalizes a sense of responsibility. According to a recent article in The Guardian, the likelihood that released prisoners will commit another crime is decreased by 27 percent if they meet their victims while serving a prison term. Numerous victims and prisoners have also attested to the power of intervention both in healing the victim and in reforming the criminal.

Broad-Reaching Impacts

Proponents of restorative justice not only see constructive change to individuals harmed by crime and those who commit them, but also broader benefits to both the criminal justice system and society as a whole. In recent years, the U.S. has seen escalating costs associated with dealing with crime. This is especially evident in crowded prisons and increased pressure on court systems. Additionally, many observers of the criminal justice system are critical of the high recidivism rates, which seem to suggest that the current ways of dealing with crime are simply not working.

By seeking to reform criminals and therefore lower the recidivism rate, supporters of restorative justice programs are quick to note that lower levels of repeat offenders will cost society less money, reduce crime, lower pressure on court systems and allow resources to be reallocated to other criminal justice programs that have been cut or eliminated due to budget constraints. Also, society benefits considerably from having former prisoners become law-abiding citizens once released, and victims who are able to deal with traumatic events in healthy and productive ways.

Currently, restorative justice programs exist in many cities all across the United States, although they typically have limited funding and a short reach. They generally have been created by community or religious organizations seeking to reform their local criminal justice system. Through education and the right approach, there appears to be plenty of evidence that restorative justice programs could have a major impact on the crisis now facing American prisons.