Restorative Justice

Restorative Justice

Cate Malek

Updated May 2013 by Heidi Burgess


"[In Rwanda] something different had to be invented, a different way of defining justice, a different way of dispensing it." -- Jane Ciabattari


Restorative justice advocates restitution to the victim by the offender rather than retribution by the state against the offender. Instead of escalating the cycle of violence, it tries to restore relationships between the victim and the offender and end violence.


Anyone who has been either a victim of or a perpetrator of a crime or other injustice. It is commonly used in community justice settings between minor offenders (e.g., vandals or petty thieves) and their victims. It has also been used in extremely intense and severe cases of injustice, such as genocide or apartheid in South Africa.


Restorative justice encourages healing victims' wounds, restoring offenders to law-abiding lives, and repairing relationships. It allows those most affected by the crime to be directly involved in the process of justice. Both victims and offenders are key stakeholders in the process. Victims include those directly affected by the offense, their family members and community. Any restorative justice process begins with the victims' safety, support, and needs. Addressing these needs and the needs of the community is necessary if demands for severe punishment are to be quelled.

The process empowers victims to participate in dialogue with offenders. Victims take an active role in directing this dialogue and in defining the responsibilities of offenders.

Offenders are encouraged to participate in the dialogue, to understand the harm they have caused, and to take active responsibility for it. Offenders make efforts to make amends by committing to certain obligations. These can be fines or community work--or direct work with or for the victim to repair harms done.   Although these obligations may be painful, the goal is not revenge, but repairing relationships.

Restorative justice is an innovative, preventive response that strives to understand crime in its larger context. It challenges us to examine the roots of crime. Practitioners assume that crime originates in social conditions, and recognize that offenders themselves have often suffered harm. Therefore, communities must take responsibility for those conditions that contribute to crime and work to promote healing, which is crucial for both victims and offenders. Restorative justice tries to rehabilitate offenders and reintegrate them into the community. Removing offenders from the community, or other severe restrictions, is a last resort. Often, the best way to prevent re-offending is re-integration. Many believe that restorative justice should be integrated with legal justice as a complementary process that improves the quality, effectiveness, and efficiency of justice as a whole.

Restorative justice takes two forms. Victim-offender mediation involves face-to-face dialogues between individual victims and offenders. Because this process allows victims and offenders to meet, it can allow them to see the other as a person rather than a stereotype. A skilled mediator is necessary for these meetings. Group conferencing is an extension of victim-offender mediation and often includes the victim's family and community. Extra parties can be more forceful than one-on-one mediation.

Restorative justice can be vital in responding to severe human rights violations or genocide. It requires governments--and insurgents-- to tell the truth about past atrocities. Many think true healing requires three steps:

  1. remembering the atrocities committed,
  2. repenting, and
  3. forgiving.

War crimes inquiries and truth commissions aid in the process of memory and publicize the extent to which victims have suffered. In cases of clear injustice, compensation can help to meet the victims' needs and help remedy the injustice. Repentance can also re-establish relationships among the conflicting parties. Sometimes, conflicts end more peacefully when parties acknowledge their guilt and apologize than when formal criminal proceedings are used.

In civil war, the line between offenders and victims often blurs. One goal of peacebuilding is to restore the whole community. Restoration focuses on transforming the relationship between conflicting parties. However, such restoration cannot take place unless it is supported by society and the larger community makes restorative processes available. International restorative justice depends on structural changes, reconstruction programs, democratization, and the creation of civil society.


Many cities have a victim-offender reconciliation program, which is usually entered voluntarily by the criminal and his or her victim after guilt has been established. Rather than serving a prison sentence, the victim and offender sit down with a mediator to review what happened, why, and what can be done to make amends.

 Recently, restorative justice programs have begun to be adopted by inner city high schools which have found them to be particularly effective in diminishing gang violence.  Rather then punishing students with sanctions such as suspension and expulsion--which just thrusts youth onto the street--RJ programs help the youth work through their conflicts and mend relationships with those harmed in a much more productive and lasting way.

At the international level, the best-known example of restorative justice is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which brought blacks and whites together to account for the crimes of the apartheid era and move beyond them to a new, bi-racial South Africa.


Restorative justice can be used in any situation in which wrongs or crimes have been committed, but there is a need and a desire for the criminal to move back into and be accepted by the community in which they live. This is most often the case in minor cases, but can occur at any level of conflict.

Links to Related Articles:

Community Dispute Resolution (CDR)
Apology and Forgiveness