Restoration or Renovation? Evaluating Restorative Justice Outcomes

Article excerpt

Critics of restorative justice claim that its popularity is based on 'humanistic sentiment' and suggest that the process is incapable of achieving its aim of restoring victims and offenders. The current study sought to establish if restorative justice is capable of restoring victims and offenders in a meaningful manner, or if the process simply results in a superficial renovation of the impact of crime. Seventy-two victims and offenders participated in a community group conference model of restorative justice and were compared on outcome variables with a control group of victims and offenders who underwent a conventional court process. Results demonstrate that the process is capable of impacting upon variables associated with the criminal act. Furthermore, it is argued that a reduction in offending behaviour and victimisation impact are realistic outcomes of the restorative justice processes, Finally, regression analysis indicated that victims were satisfied with the restorative justice process asa result of their greater participation rather than their satisfaction with reparation or restitution.

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Restorative justice theories represent a departure from the current criminal justice system; however, the principles and methods involved are by no means novel. Mediation as a means of dealing with wrongdoing predates the Germanic model of the King's Peace, which effectively changed personal injury into a public wrong (Young, 2001). Although some apparently view this shift in a less than positive light (e.g., Delgado's [2000] use of the term atavistic), Cohen (2001, p. 209) argues that restorative justice's appeal is a direct result of '... deep dissatisfaction with the traditional criminal justice system ...'. Indeed, restorative justice models appear capable of addressing the three main deficits of the current criminal justice system. That is, firstly the current system is state-oriented and sees crime as a violation against the state, secondly the current system is punishment and offender-oriented and neglects victims, and finally the current system neglects the need for offenders' reintegration into society (Dzur & Olson, 2004). Addressing these concerns is made possible by three overarching principles of restorative justice. First, restorative justice models view crime as a conflict between the individuals involved and results in harm to victims and communities rather than the state. Second, the central goal of restorative justice is to reconcile and repair that harm, and finally, the process facilitates active participation by all parties involved (Latimer & Kleinknecht, 2000). Although the arguments underpinning the momentum behind the restorative justice movement seem sensible, advocates are not devoid of resistance.

Critics of restorative justice models express concern that they may be doing more harm than good and that their appeal lies in 'humanistic sentiment' rather than being based on objective empirical support (Levrant, Cullen, Fulton, & Wozniak, 1999). Delgrado (2000, p. 759) contends that restorative justice models deliver a 'disservice to victims, offenders and society at large'. Indeed, a major criticism of restorative justice is that it fails to deliver what it claims; in that restorative justice does not restore victims and offenders. However, Morris (2002, p. 597) asserts that many of the criticisms aimed at restorative justice are a result of a 'fundamental misunderstanding of what restorative justice seeks to achieve'. Certainly we would be doing restorative justice a disservice were we to 'raise expectations of complete success' (Wright, 2002). It would be unrealistic to expect restorative justice to restore victims and offenders to their pre-offence condition. One cannot undo the crime, but proponents of restorative justice do not make this claim. Rather, there are specific goals associated with restorative justice that make empirical evaluation of the process outcomes possible. …