Restorative Justice

Michelle Maiese

Updated June 2013 by Heidi Burgess and Sarah Cast

Originally published October 2003

"How can justice be found in the face of genocide, a crime so vast and evil that it defies simple justice? Is there restorative justice beyond retribution and revenge? Must some kind of justice be done before healing can take place?"

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

The Aims of Restorative Justice

Restorative justice is concerned with healing victims' wounds, restoring offenders to law-abiding lives, and repairing harm done to interpersonal relationships and the community. It seeks to involve all stakeholders and provide opportunities for those most affected by the crime to be directly involved in the process of responding to the harm caused.

A central premise of restorative justice is that victims, offenders, and the affected communities are all key stakeholders in the restorative process.[1] Victims include not only those directly affected by the offense, but also family members and members of the affected community. The safety, support, and needs of these victims are the starting points for any restorative justice process. Thus a primary objective is to attend to victims' needs: material, financial, emotional, and social.[2] Addressing these needs and the needs of the community is necessary if public demands for severe punishment are to be quelled.

This requires the assumption that crimes or violations are committed against real individuals, rather than against the state. Restorative justice, therefore, advocates restitution to the victim by the offender rather than retribution by the state against the offender. Instead of continuing and escalating the cycle of violence, it tries to restore relationships and stop the violence.[3]

A restorative justice process also aims to empower victims to participate effectively in dialogue or mediation with offenders. Victims take an active role in directing the exchange that takes place, as well as defining the responsibilities and obligations of offenders. Offenders are likewise encouraged to participate in this exchange, to understand the harm they have caused to victims, and to take active responsibility for it. This means making efforts on their parts to set things right, to make amends for their violations, by committing to certain obligations, that may come in the form of reparations, restitution, or community work. While fulfilling these obligations may be experienced as painful, the goal is not revenge, but restoration of healthy relationships between individuals and within communities that have been most affected by the crime.

Restorative justice is a forward-looking, preventive response that strives to understand crime in its social context. It challenges us to examine the root causes of violence and crime in order that these cycles might be broken.[4] This approach is based on the assumption that crime has its origins in social conditions, and recognizes that offenders themselves have often suffered harm. Therefore, communities must both take some responsibility for remedying those conditions that contribute to crime and also work to promote healing.[5]

Healing is crucial not just for victims, but also for offenders. Both the rehabilitation of offenders and their integration into the community are vital aspects of restorative justice. Offenders are treated respectfully and their needs are addressed. Removing them from the community, or imposing any other severe restrictions, is a last resort. It is thought that the best way to prevent re-offending is re-integration.[6]

The justice process in this way strengthens the community and promotes changes that will prevent similar harms from happening in the future. It is generally thought 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.[7] Because they focus on the needs of the victim, the offender, and the community, restorative processes can help to determine how the law should be applied most fairly.

Processes at the National Level

Restorative justice at the national level takes on various forms. Victim-offender mediation is perhaps the most common, and involves face-to-face dialogues between victims and offenders. Victims' needs, including the need to be consulted, are the focus. In victim-offender meetings, offenders have a chance to take active steps to make reparation to their victims. This extends further than monetary compensation, and includes an apology and an explanation of how the crime occurred. The offender might also do some work for the victim, or for some community cause selected by the victim.

In addition, offenders have to listen to victims' stories and face up to the reality of what they have done. They are often deeply affected by this experience, and have positive motivation to make reparations. Because this process brings victims and offenders together and enables them to talk to one another, it can allow them to see the other as a person rather than a stereotype. For this process to be effective, a skilled mediator should facilitate these meetings.

Group conferencing is an extension of victim-offender mediation and includes more parties, such as family members of the victim or offender, community contacts, teachers, neighbors, or counselors. The involvement of extra parties can make conferencing more forceful than one-on-one mediation.

Community victim-support organizations work to provide victims with material, psychological, and social support and aid in the healing process. Other organizations offer support services for offenders, including literacy education, relationship counseling, drug counseling, and housing accommodation. Some agencies assist in reintegration for offenders and help them to find employment. Still other groups work to help communities as a whole become less prone to crime.[8]

U.S. school districts plagued by segregation and gang violence are increasingly implementing restorative justice programs for students to develop mutual empathy and address past wrongs through meaningful reparations. An Oakland, California school program that facilitates student conversations by hosting talking circles, for example, is offered as an alternative to "zero tolerance" policies like expulsion.[9] The program thus seeks to replace punitive responses to violence with opportunities to address the root causes of school and community-wide disputes.

Restorative Justice at the International Level

Restorative justice might also have an important role in responding to severe human rights violations or cases of genocide. A crucial step toward restorative justice is taken when governments tell the truth about past atrocities carried out by the state.[10] It is thought that true healing requires three steps:

  1. Remembering the atrocities committed,
  2. Repenting, and
  3. Forgiving.

War crimes inquiries and truth commissions can aid in the process of memory and truth telling, and help to make public the extent to which victims have suffered.

Restoration often becomes a matter of restitution or war reparations. In cases where clear acts of injustice have taken place, some type of compensation can help to meet the material and emotional needs of victims and begin to remedy the injustice. Repentance can also help to re-establish relationships among the conflicting parties and help them to move toward reconciliation. In some cases, conflicts can end more peacefully when parties acknowledge their guilt and apologize than when formal war crimes adjudication or criminal proceedings are used.

In cases of civil war, because the line between offenders and victims can become blurred, a central goal of peacebuilding is to restore the community as a whole. In Northern Ireland, for example, the adoption of restorative justice techniques and practices helped transform destructive practices of punishing various actors into more constructive, non-violent mechanisms of dispute resolution.[11] Restoration often becomes tied to the transformation of the relationship between the conflicting parties. However, such restoration cannot take place unless it is supported by wider social conditions and unless the larger community makes restorative processes available.

Restorative justice in the international context is therefore linked to social structural changes, reconstruction programs to help communities ravaged by conflict, democratization, and the creation of institutions of civil society.


[1] Howard Zehr and H. Mika. 1997.  "Fundamental Concepts of Restorative Justice." Contemporary Justice Review: Issues in Criminal, Social, and Restorative Justice, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp. 47-56. <>.

[2] Tony F. Marshall. "Restorative Justice: An Overview," (Home Office Research Development and Statistics Directorate, 1999). <>.

[3] Peggy Hutchison and Harmon Wray. "What is Restorative Justice?" (New World Outlook, 1999). <>.

[4] Hutchison and Wray.

[5] Marshall, 6.

[6] Zehr and Mika, 2.

[7] Marshall, 7.

[8] See section on "The Cornerposts of Restorative Justice" in Daniel W. Van Ness and Karen Heetderks Strong, Restoring Justice: An Introduction to Restorative Justice. (Elsevier, 2010). <>.

[9] Patricia Leigh Brown. "Opening Up, Students Transform a Vicious Circle" The New York Times. April 3, 2013. <>.

[10] Hutchison and Wray.

[11] Graham Ellison and Peter Shirlow, "From War to Peace: Informalism, Restorative Justice and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland," in Restorative Justice: From Theory to Practice. (Emerald Group Publishing, 2008). <>.

Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Restorative Justice." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003 <>.

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