Restorative Justice

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 What is Restorative Justice?

A victim’s life is forever changed after the crime. This is true regardless of the type of crime that occurred. Often, our responses to these events are to seek revenge or make the other person pay for their actions in an attempt to find justice. Rarely do those attempts meet our needs for closure or peace of mind.

Another choice to these feelings is a restorative approach to justice that allows victims and offenders to hear each other out. Restorative justice recognizes that crime hurts victims, offenders, and the community.

Here is a comparison of a few elements of traditional punishment-centered justice and restorative justice:

Traditional Justice:

  • Focused on punishing the offender
  • Crime is essentially a violation against the state – a law was broken
  • Focused on the question: Who did it?
  • Discourages offender empathy and taking responsibility
  • Because offenders are not allowed contact with their victims, they cannot write apology letters
  • Offenders and victims never talk to each other about the crime or its impact. Victims do not have the chance to ask questions: Why did you choose me? What were my loved one’s last words?

Restorative Justice:

  • Focused on the victim and healing
  • Crime is a violation of people and relationships. Such violations result in obligations
  • Focused on the question: What are the needs of all involved?
  • Connects offenders with the harm of their actions and helps them take responsibility
  • Apology letters are encouraged
  • With the assistance of trained facilitators, the offender and victim are guided in talking to each other. Victims can get their questions answered

How Does Restorative Justice Work?

After an individual is convicted of a crime, normally, they will receive a criminal punishment during the sentencing phase. This can include various punishments, from probation to prison time. The length and nature of a criminal sentence depend on the severity of the crime and, in some instances, the individual’s criminal history. For example, a first-time offender will likely be shown some leniency and given a lighter sentence.

Today, more jurisdictions are exploring a restorative justice model rather than the traditional crime and punishment approach. The criminal courts may apply restorative justice, and comprehensive victim service programs and community advisory boards may also administer it.

Restorative justice is an alternative to sentencing someone to jail or prison for committing a crime. Instead, a restorative justice approach focuses on:

  • The offender paying restitution to the victim to make up for what was done
  • The offender doing community service to pay their debt to society
  • The offender apologizing to the victim for committing the crime
  • Victim-offender meetings to allow the two parties to express their thoughts and feelings about the crime

What are the Benefits of Restorative Justice?

The goal of the restorative justice system is to repair the harm done by the offender who committed the crime.
Restorative justice can even be used in situations involving serious or violent criminal acts.

Some benefits of a restorative justice system include:

  • Rehabilitation of the offender
  • Restitution to the victim. If possible, the victim will be put in the position they were in before the crime occurred
  • The offender’s ability to make amends to the victim which can reduce the offender’s feelings of guilt and shame
  • Reconciling the offender with the community

This approach is meant to transform both the victim and offender after a terrible wrong occurs. Restorative justice focuses on the principle that people deserve second chances but must first admit their wrongs and take steps to make a negative situation as positive as possible.

What is a Victim-Offender Meeting?

If both the victim and offender agree, a meeting can be arranged after the crime occurs. A victim-offender meeting is commonly referred to as victim mediation. It involves a face-to-face meeting between an offender and their victim. A mediator, an uninterested third-party facilitator, oversees the meeting to ensure things go smoothly and help both parties express the thoughts and feelings that resulted from the crime.

The goal of a victim-offender meeting is to personalize the criminal incident and encourage dialogue between the two parties. The offender and victim may discuss other things, such as appropriate compensation for the victim. For example, if the crime is theft, the offender may agree to repay the victim for the money or items they stole.

After the meeting, a written resolution is handed over to the court, and whatever the parties agree to becomes a formal court order. If the offender agrees to take steps to remedy the problem, the court will enforce that and make sure the offender complies with what they agreed to do.

While lawyers are not required to be present during this type of meeting, a lawyer can offer valuable legal advice or counsel prior to or following the meeting. It would be helpful to discuss the situation with a lawyer beforehand to be prepared for the meeting and if there is a chance that the possibility of using mediation may be discussed. It is also possible for both parties to have a lawyer present during the meeting to protect their legal interests.

Where Else Is Restorative Justice Used?

As discussed, restorative justice can be used as an alternate method in the criminal justice system. Notably, the principles of restorative justice can also be used for conflict resolution in other settings. This includes the following:

  • Family disputes
  • Work disputes
  • Disputes at educational institutions
  • Disputes at churches
  • Other community group problems

For example, say two students were involved in a violent bullying situation. Restorative justice practices could solve the problem by allowing the offender to make amends to the victim and apologize. If restorative justice is applied, the victim and the offender have a better chance of putting the matter behind them.

The alternative punishment for the bully could have been harsh, such as expulsion from school or criminal charges (depending on the student’s age and the level of violence). Restorative justice is an ideal alternative in an adolescent setting.

Another example where restorative justice could be used is for workplace harassment. Before starting a state human rights investigation, filing a lawsuit, or seeking criminal charges, an employee who feels harassed can try restorative justice. Mediation could be helpful in this situation so both parties have the opportunity to air their feelings.

The offender is more likely to stop the behavior if they do not feel that they are being unfairly punished. The person accused of harassment will be able to understand the consequences of their actions, become educated on appropriate workplace behavior, and make amends with the victim. If successful, this can help avoid the employee’s termination or a lawsuit based on a hostile work environment.

Should I Contact a Lawyer Regarding Restorative Justice?

For both parties, restorative justice is much more complex than other forms of criminal punishment. Many victims may not want to participate, especially if they went through the trauma of a serious or violent crime. Having an attorney looking out for them may help them decide that participating could be worth it.

A criminal lawyer can help the offender understand their role in a restorative justice system and guide them through the process. A lawyer can also explain the benefits of restorative justice and emphasize the importance of being offered a chance for rehabilitation.

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