Restorative justice, introduced in the United States in the 1970s, is defined as a change in the approach of the criminal justice system. This moves the focus from the traditional methods of retribution and rehabilitation to the role of the victim and offender working together collaboratively to repair the harm caused by a crime.
The U.S. criminal justice system historically has employed two models for dealing with crime and criminals. The retribution model emphasizes deterrence and punishment through the adversarial criminal justice process. The rehabilitation model emphasizes the need for society to assist criminals in changing their attitudes and behavior. The introduction of a third model, restorative justice, examines the broken relationships that crime creates and identifies the needs and obligations of the victim and offender.
The restorative justice view acknowledges that crime harms not only the victims but also all members of the community. If crime is a response to disharmony in the community, a community response offers the opportunity for local behavioral standards to be imposed. In addition, creative solutions, which are usually lacking in court imposed sanctions, are possible.
Gordon Bazemore, Professor and Chair in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and Director of the Community Justice Institute, at Florida Atlantic University, writes in his 1998 essay Restorative Justice and Earned Redemption: Communities, Victims, and Offender Reintegration, that "crime harms more than victims." It impacts on all members of the community and community involvement in the process of restorative justice, in and of itself, is an important component in solving social problems.
The tradition of restorative justice comes from native or aboriginal roots that are more apparent in the Canadian system. Researchers argue that many of the processes that are used in such programs have their first appearances within native people. For example, New Zealand has structured its juvenile system on restorative-based processes from its Maori culture. In North America, both native communities from Canada and the United States have influenced the development of restorative practices.
In 1974, a restorative justice program was implemented by The Mennonite Church in Kirchener, Ontario. The church sponsored the first face-to-face meeting between the victim and offender. Four years later, the first restorative justice program was held in Elkhart, Indiana. This was a joint effort by the Mennonite Central Committee and Prisoner and Community Together group. These early programs in the United States were referred to as VORP, the Victim/Offender Reconciliation Program.
Originally viewed as a fringe idea, restorative justice developed respectability in the 1990s, in part because the retribution model had proved to be an expensive and seemingly ineffective way of dealing with crime in the United States. In both the United States and Canada, the legal system, through legislation and case law, have implemented restorative justice over the past four decades.
In Canada, there are more than 120 programs that fall under the umbrella of the Conflict Resolution Network. Meanwhile, in the United States, there are over 300 programs of this type. In both countries these programs appear in a number of settings, such as part of the court system, community-based schemes and religiously affiliated programs.
Mark Umbreit, Director of the Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking, wrote in his essay The Development and Impact of Victim-Offender Mediation in the United States (1995) about the victims and juvenile offenders he questioned in Albuquerque, Austin, Minneapolis and Oakland. Umbreit reported that more than 90 percent of mediations produced a restitution plan. Within a one-year period following program completion, crimes committed by juveniles going through the process were fewer and less serious than those who did not. Umbreit also cited a Canadian study that offered similar results in a comparison study between provinces including Calgary, Langley, Ottawa, and Winnipeg.
On an international level, the United Nations has been a prime mover in endorsing the principles of restorative justice. In 1996, the U.N. published a Handbook on Restorative Justice Programmes, which offered information on how to create and manage programs worldwide. 1997, the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice adopted a provisional agenda for the Tenth U.N. Congress, held in the year 2000, which examined guidelines on this important criminal justice issue.