Some fear that restorative programmes could result in sanctions imposed on people (especially youth) who would have simply been left alone if restorative sanctions did not exist. Restorative justice may widen the net of social control by receiving cases that the formal court-system would not have received, or by imposing sanctions not utilized by the formal justice system. The use of informal processes and community service sanctions gives rise to a new professionalism, expanding the sphere of social intervention.

In application, some have found that restitution programmes widen the net of social control because they are not used as alternatives to incarceration. Those offenders who would not have otherwise been processed by the formal system, are ordered to pay restitution. If they fail to do so, the system resorts again to incarcerating them.

This widening of the net of social control can be encouraged by programme administrators who desire to achieve high success rates and therefore turn away tough cases. The result is that low-risk offenders who would not have otherwise been prosecuted in a formal proceeding are taken into restorative programmes.

Sometimes widening the net of social control may not be an undesirable thing. Victims of first-time offenders are not less injured than victims of offenders who have committed similar crimes in the past. Although some of these offences would be thought to be too trivial to pursue in a formal process, they still would be appropriate for restorative programmes because injuries have resulted, parties need restoration. Moreover, to stave off future offending, perhaps the first-time offence needs to meet with a societal response. Finally, sanctions imposed under conditions of net-widening would be agreed upon by the parties directly involved, instead of by the State apparatus.

Net-widening may not be undesirable if it is accompanied by institutional restructuring. That is, if social control by State-run institutions are decreased with a concomitant increase in social control by victims, offenders and communities. Under these circumstances, expansion of restorative processes narrows the net of State social control. Evidence of this effect exists. Some researchers have reported that restorative conferences reduced the numbers of juveniles in court and custody.

This document prepared by Christopher Bright. Copyright Prison Fellowship International.