Cases of biased policing, for-profit prisons, and mass incarceration flood our news cycles. It is easy to feel discouraged and hopeless while scrolling through the accounts. Where do we even begin to remedy our criminal justice system? What can we do? Learn about restorative justice and the ways it can transform how we handle crime.

What is restorative justice? Let’s start there. 

Think of restorative justice as a means to fill in holes that are overlooked by our current criminal justice system. 

The Failings of Retributive Justice

The dominating justice system in the U.S., retributive justice, uses the following logic: When a person commits a crime, they should be punished. The threat of prison will disincentivize people from committing a crime, thus leading to fewer criminals and safer communities. 

I don’t need to tell you that this system is not successful. But, I will anyway. 

The United States has more people in prison than any other country in the world. In the last 30 years, there has been a 500 percent increase in our national prison population, raising it to over 2.4 million prisoners. If our criminal justice system was working, wouldn’t this number decrease?

Once a criminal is released from prison, there is no place for them in our society. Ex-convicts are unemployable, unskilled, stigmatized, and barred from voting. They are often traumatized and more violent than before they entered. Within three years of being released, 50 to 70 percent of them return to prison.

Without a thoughtful and supported effort to help ex-convicts reintegrate into society after they are released, how can we expect our communities to be safer or crime-free?

The Practice of Restorative Justice

Restorative justice addresses these problems. Instead of interpreting crime as an act committed against the state, it reminds us that crime impacts and harms real people, communities, and relationships. To achieve justice, this harm needs to be addressed and repaired. 

To do this, the offender, victim, and affected community members meet face-to-face to decide together how the offender can address their wrongdoing and repair the damage they caused. 

Instead of isolating the offender from their community and enabling a passive relationship with their crime, in restorative justice, the offender confronts their actions and seeks reintegration into the community they harmed. 

This can look like a person repairing the damage they caused to a neighbor’s property or paying for the medical bills for someone after a car accident. But, this can also be applied to much more serious offenses.

Restorative Justice and Serious Crime 

In Shannon Sliva’s TEDxMileHigh talk, she shares her experience working with a grieving wife and daughter of a man killed in a robbery. For six hours, she sat silently as they spoke with the man who murdered him, guided by a leather-bound book filled with their unanswered questions, things they wanted him to know, and details on what they had lost.

This six-hour-long conversation was undoubtedly a painful experience and you may be wondering if it was more harmful than helpful.  

According to Sliva’s research, 95 percent of participants who experience restorative justice feel satisfied with the process. 

As Sliva explains, when someone has wronged you, often what you want is for the person to “look you in the eye, acknowledge what happened, and maybe, if it’s genuine, apologize. You want a chance to explain how they’ve impacted your life and see them get it. You want answers to some questions, so you can try to stop figuring out how this happened, how you could have protected yourself better, and whether you can trust someone again.”

These moments are not possible in our current justice system. Most often, crime victims are not involved in any part of the process and are distanced from the offender as much as possible. As Sliva shares, “there are all sorts of real and symbolic barriers that prevent people who cause harm from being accountable to the people they hurt” in our current justice system. 

Does Restorative Justice Work?

The seeds of modern restorative justice were sewn by indigenous tribes in North America and Africa. For these groups, restorative justice was so deeply embedded into their culture that it was not seen primarily as a criminal justice system, but as a way of life.

These societies were and are based around a uniting sense of community, something that often feels foreign when compared to our highly individualized society. Yet, since the 1970s, restorative justice has grown considerably in popularity. In that time, its effectiveness has been tested.

Studies have found that victims experience higher satisfaction rates and offenders have lower recidivism rates—the rate that convicted criminals re-offend—in restorative justice than with retributive justice. One study found a decrease in recidivism by 25 percent in the case of 12,000 different juveniles. 

In Longmont, CO, a youth restorative justice system led to a decrease in the recidivism rates from 70 percent to 8 percent. 

Studies have also shown how cost-effective restorative justice is when compared to retributive justice. In California, the cost of arresting around 80,000 juveniles would cost the state $7.9 billion, compared to only $21.7 million if they used restorative justice practices. It costs more to put a teenager in jail than to send them to Harvard. 

A New Approach to Discipline in Schools

In addition to its uses in crime, restorative justice helps administrators navigate and reform conflict in school contexts. This is done to curb the school to prison pipeline, where policies and practices in schools favor “incarceration over education”. 

The Schott Foundation demonstrates the power of restorative justice in schools using the model of Carlos. In the example, Carlos has an argument with his parents in the morning that makes him late for school. There are two ways the school can receive Carlos. 

In the first, Carlos’ teacher scolds him in front of the entire class. When he talks back to the teacher, she sends him to detention. In detention, Carlos gets into a minor fight with a fellow student, leading the teacher to call the police. The police arrest both students, sending them to juvenile detention, where they miss the rest of the school day and now have an arrest record and face a possible suspension.

The restorative way goes differently. When Carlos enters his class late, his teacher speaks with him privately after class and schedules a time to meet with the school counselor. When Carlos gets into a fight with another classmate, mediators help the students agree to clean the cafeteria together during a free period as a way to repair the harm they caused. Later, when Carlos meets with the school counselor and his parents, they discuss ways to improve his home situation so he does not arrive at school late in the future.

Using restorative practices helps Carlos learn from his mistakes, prevent future misbehavior, and avoid an arrest record and suspension. 

If schools can learn to manage conflict using restorative principles, countless youth can be set up for success, instead of failure—and potential incarceration.

A Potential Solution to Large-Scale Conflict

Restorative justice is still gaining popularity in the U.S., and it has not yet been adopted on a large scale. 

What can we learn by turning to other countries that have?

Following the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsis in Rwanda, the Rwandan government implemented a restorative justice model adapted after traditional community-based justice systems. 

The Gacaca Trials united genocide perpetrators, their living victims, and community members in determining the fate of offenders. Most genocide perpetrators participated in Travail d’Intérêt Général: these rehabilitation camps helped offenders dismantle genocide ideology, learn skills to gain employment once being released, and rebuild relationships with community members. 

What Can You Do to Help?

1. Embrace Restorative Justice in Your Life

Restorative Justice believes that people can change. Do you? (Read this TEDxMileHigh article about the power of transformations and how we can change.)

At the end of Sliva’s talk, she asks us to consider ways that we build walls and avoid conflict in our own lives. 

If we are going to embrace restorative justice as a society, we need to become more community-oriented in the way we go about our daily lives. 

Restorative justice worked well for the indigenous members of groups such as the Hollow Water First Nation on Lake Winnipeg, Carcross-Tagish, and Dahka T’lingit First Nations because their culture was inseparable from it. 

Ask yourself this, do you practice forgiveness and understanding daily? Or do you isolate yourself from others, avoid conflict, and put people in boxes? Discover how to have restorative conversations.

2. Volunteer

Restorative justice programs need community members to be effective. Locate a restorative justice nonprofit near you to get involved. Begin your search with these nonprofits:

3. Stay informed 

Read the following books to learn more about Restorative Justice:

More on Restorative Justice

This article just scrapes the surface of our complicated system and the potential of restorative justice. There is still a multitude of unanswered questions and perspectives: Why isn’t restorative justice being used more than it is? Where else can restorative justice be used? What about the people who are already in prison and did not have a chance to experience restorative justice? What can be done for them and their victims? Stay tuned for more articles on restorative justice in the U.S. In the meantime, read up, donate your time, and stay informed.