Across the world, a growing social movement advocates restorative justice (RJ) for those affected by crime - victims and offenders alike. This entails parties with a stake in a particular offence talking to each other - either directly or via a third party - about how everyone was affected, and collectively resolving how the harm caused can best be repaired.
Restorative justice can take many forms. The model that has been most rigorously tested involves a face-to-face meeting between the offender, victim and their supporters, convened by a trained facilitator. These RJ "conferences" have been used on a limited basis in the United Kingdom, both alongside normal court procedures before or after sentencing, and as an alternative to conventional criminal justice procedures. RJ principles are being broadly implemented through the Youth Justice Act 1999, but there is as yet no mainstream provision for RJ with adults.
Advocates of RJ believe that it can solve many of the problems in the mainstream criminal justice system. In court, offenders are rarely confronted with the full consequences of their actions, and hardly ever have the opportunity to offer a direct apology to their victims, even if they wish to do so.
The theory of RJ proposes that offenders who listen to their victims explaining the effects of the crime and accept responsibility for the harm they have caused are less likely to reoffend than offenders who journey through the justice system in the usual way.
Crucially, RJ involves victims too. Victims rarely have the chance to explain to their offenders in their own words the effects that the crime has had on them. The RJ conference offers them that chance. The offender's response may help to allay their fears; many victims say afterwards that "he was not the monster I imagined".
Programmes around the world have demonstrated that RJ can reduce reoffending, but research reveals that it does not always do so. Experimental tests in Australia, the United States and the UK have employed a randomised design on the medical model, where consenting participants were randomly assigned either to an RJ programme or a control group, which received normal criminal justice processing alone. The results of these studies are fascinating, but mixed in ways that are currently unpredictable. In one site, offenders who committed violent crime reoffended at much lower rates after RJ than after court, but there was no effect on property offenders. In another site, the property offenders who experienced RJ reoffended at lower rates than those dealt with by conventional justice procedures, but there was no discernible effect on violent offenders. RJ even increased reoffending in some cases: in Canberra, Aboriginal property offenders increased their offending threefold.
There is also evidence of a gender effect with RJ working differently with males and females. It appears that there are many undiscovered aspects of the characteristics of offences and offenders, as well as the social context in which the crime occurs, that may contribute towards the effectiveness of RJ.
In contrast, the effect of RJ on victims is consistently positive. Studies spanning 20 years show that what victims want is very different from what the justice system usually assumes. Punishment and retribution turn out to be much less important for victims than emotional restoration and a genuine apology. Fear, desire for revenge and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder have been drastically reduced and victims are consistently less angry, less afraid and more sympathetic toward their offenders after RJ. Victims have also reported that their daily functioning improved after RJ, and some who had been unable to work because of psychological trauma were able to return to their jobs.
Most of our justice system is untested yet. More research has been conducted into RJ than many other forms of intervention, and some advocates feel it is time that it entered the mainstream.
But there remain some important things to find out, and current research provides an excellent opportunity to develop evidence-led policy-making in our criminal justice system. We do not know exactly when it is safe to use RJ without increasing reoffending or re-victimisation, nor why the effects vary as they do. We need to find out so that RJ programmes can be targeted effectively. We do know that RJ is usually beneficial to victims of many different kinds of crime, serious and less serious. But despite election pledges to put victims first, most attention remains focused on offenders, with the emphasis on punishment rather than restoration. Resources may not be available for victims to enjoy the benefits until there is a proven reduction in reoffending. But if research can show where RJ is safe to use, the economic and social benefits could outweigh the financial costs.
The authors are affiliated with the Jerry Lee Programme on Randomised Trials in Restorative Justice and Pennsylvania and Australian National Universities