Source: (2003) Policy Sciences. 36: 279-306.

Restorative justice, a normative theory and reform movement emphasizing dialogue and reconciliation between victim, offender, and community, is a widespread, if experimental, part of the practice of criminal justice in the United States. This essay argues that restorative justice draws connections between civic engagement and punishment practices that distinguish it as a normative theory of criminal justice. Advocates of restorative justice expect the growth of non-punitive attitudes and the weakening of support for incarceration to emerge from a public and lay-oriented context of adjudication. The role of lay participation in achieving social change, although prominent in restorative justice critiques of mainstream criminal justice norms and practices, has not been clearly articulated in practical terms. Significant ambiguities remain regarding the degree of lay participation, scope of authority, and the focus of restorative justice forums. The essay argues that an adequate assessment of restorative justice experiments should include an analysis of their impact on public attitudes towards crime and crime control policy and not simply on their impact on the specific victims and offenders involved. The link between less incarceration and restorative justice forums is public willingness to grant them the authority to hear and sanction offenses that would ordinarily receive incarceration. Whether and how they can influence broader public attitudes, then, is a critical test of restorative justice effectiveness. Author's abstract.