Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

The Impact of Restorative and Conventional Responses to Harm on Victims: A Comparative Study

Academic journal article British Journal of Community Justice

The Impact of Restorative and Conventional Responses to Harm on Victims: A Comparative Study

Article excerpt


Over the past two decades there has been increasing attention paid by North American and European Union governments to public concerns about the youth criminal justice system. Despite considerable evidence of an actual decreasing incidence of youthful harms over this period (Thornton, Craft, Dahlberg, Lynch, & Baer, 2002), selective media coverage of sensational harms caused by youth have served to produce chronic pressure on policy makers in both educational and justice institutions to react with a "get tough" or "just-desserts" mentality to youthful wrongdoers (Ghetti & Redlich, 2001; Roberts, 2003). Seemingly lost in this punitive focus are the needs and voices of victims, where despite considerable personal and financial cost, victims continue to be marginalized in the youth justice system (Zehr, 1990). As Choi and Severson (2009) note:

   Many crime victims face insensitive treatment in the criminal
   justice system. They often receive no restitution and rarely do
   they hear genuine expressions of remorse from the offender when the
   case is processed within traditional criminal justice system
   proceedings. (p. 813)

Dissatisfaction with the treatment of victims under the current retributive regime may have in part contributed to the emergence of restorative approaches (Zehr, 1990, 2002). Unlike youth justice policy in New Zealand and Australia, where legislation mandates restorative approaches, and in some Western European nations, where child welfare models predominate (Arthur, 2004; Pitts, 2005), Canada's Youth Criminal Justice Act includes both 'get tough' measures and opportunities for restorative responses (Denov, 2004; Erickson & Butters, 2005; Hillian et al 2004). Like their counterparts in the United States (Bazemore & Schiff, 2005; Varma, 2006) and Britain (Arthur, 2004; Barnett & Hodgson, 2006; Field, 2007; Gillen & McCormack, 2007), Canada's youth justice policy makers may be attempting to reconcile public pressure to "get tough" on youth crime with simultaneous but contradictory pressure to protect "the best interests of the child" (Denov, 2004; Roberts, 2003). In the face of negative public perception and generally "political and reactive" responses, there is urgent need to examine and document the outcomes of the few opportunities afforded by governing legislation for "exemplary and promising" (Merlo & Benekos, 2003) alternatives to the increasingly dominant punitive sanctioning approaches.

To contribute to the discourse on finding more appropriate responses to needs of victims, the primary purpose of this study is to compare the effects of restorative versus conventional justice approaches on people who had been harmed by a young person. The research was conducted in collaboration with a restorative justice program in Calgary. Following a brief description of retributive and restorative paradigms as well as pertinent research, we will describe the restorative justice program undertaken by Calgary Community Conferencing, the process of specifying variables for the study, and finally the methods, results, and implications of this research.

Contemporary Paradigms in Youth Justice

Underpinning contemporary discourse on youth justice initiatives are two models that offer different definitions of wrongdoing, processes and outcomes. These paradigms include the retributive and restorative models. The retributive model codifies wrongdoings into systems of abstract rules associated with particular consequences assumes that wrongs are discrete events to which some true and universal meaning can be assigned (Hudson, 1998; Llewellyn and Howse, 1999). This process focuses on a search for "facts" that will irrefutably establish the innocence or guilt of the alleged wrongdoer (Zehr, 1990). Once guilt for wrongdoing has been established, its consequences are predetermined (Van Ness and Strong, 1997), which suggests an underlying assumption that there is a "standard average victim" (Hudson, 1998, p. …

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