...In “Investigating the Potentials of Restorative Justice Practice” (2011), Lode Walgrave provides a framework that I prefer for conceptualizing restorative justice:  

Restorative justice is not a limited set of actions or programs but an option that may inspire to different degrees a variety of initiatives, programs and systems. ―Restorative justice is a compass, not a map. ‖The key element is the goal of repairing the crime-caused harm. All options and actions that aim at correcting such harm can be included in the restorative justice concept. All options and actions that do not address these harms are not considered restorative justice, though they may be very respectable and worthwhile. (Walgrave, 2011, 96)

I am drawn to this description, because it directs our attention to the principles of restorative justice which focus much more on relationships among victims, offenders, and communities and on the work of mediating conflict and repairing damage.  In this way, restorative justice seems to fit much more with the principles of evidence-based practice.  From the “smarter sentencing” literature, we can see how grounding offenders in their communities and building social networks are critical to success.  Consider that major criminogenic needs are related to relationships: association with anti-social peers and poor family relationships.  In fact, restorative justice could potentially be an important tool toward making interventions more responsive to the needs of defendants and offenders by tapping into and strengthening their external relationships.

...While the theory of restorative justice may indeed complement existing models drawn from the research, unfortunately, the literature that would substantiate these principles or approaches are lacking.  Walgrave (2011) explains that “restorative justice does not appear as a clearly defined set of thoughts and implementations but rather as a confused, seemingly even incoherent, assembly. Adding to the confusion are apparently similar movements, under banners such as transformative justice, relational justice, community justice, peacemaking justice, and the like.  Different and even competing visions on restorative justice are presented in the literature.” (page 94)

A major obstacle in the research is that there are so many programs that call themselves “restorative justice programs” that it is difficult to find trends that could emerge as research-based principles.  At best, we may have marginal information about whether restorative justice works and nothing about why or how it may work, to paraphrase Walgrave.

The existing program evaluations generally suffer from poor controls, small sample sizes, limited follow-up to assess sustained effects over time, and incomplete articulations of the theory of change and intended outcomes.  In fact, there is some debate about what appropriate outcomes should be.  Some argue that recidivism is not the primary focus of restorative justice, but rather outcomes like victim satisfaction, reparation of injury to victims and the community, and sense of remorse and responsibility in the offender.  Even so, others assert that recidivism – whether a primary or secondary focus – must be considered as an outcome and a benchmark for effectiveness.

Two reviews of studies that look at restorative justice programs through the lens of recidivism are:

Lawrence W. Sherman and Heather Strang (Restorative Justice: The Evidence, 2007).  After surveying a series of randomized controlled trials, they found mixed effects from restorative conferences (mostly police-led).  Violent offenders under thirty in Canberra, Australia saw significant reductions in re-offense rates.  However, there was little to no effect on violent males under 18 in Northumbria, England.  They found the reverse trends when looking at property offenders in both jurisdictions.

James Bonta, Rebecca Jesseman, Tanya Rugge, and Robert Cormier (Restorative Justice and Recidivism: Promises Made, Promises Kept?, in Handbook Of Restorative Justice, 2006).  Here, the authors conducted a meta-analysis of 39 studies looking at a broad range of restorative justice programs (not just conferencing as with Sherman and Strang).  They found that in general restorative justice programs produced small but statistically significant reductions in recidivism.  However, court-ordered restorative justice programs (in contrast to voluntary programs) had no impact on recidivism.  Offenders with low criminogenic risk (less likely to recidivate) have better recidivism outcomes than those with high criminogenic risk.  Interestingly, there was some indication that restorative justice programs yielded better effects with violent offenders (who are not necessarily high-risk).  Even so, Bonta et al. call for more research because the parsing of the 39 studies in this analysis meant that they had far fewer studies to review depending on the type of participant, intervention approach, and relationship with the formal criminal justice system.

While there may be promise here, there is hardly a preponderance of evidence to suggest what aspects of restorative justice programming help to reduce recidivism.  Walgrave’s review of the literature does suggest that there is more evidence that structured group conferencing among victims, offenders, and community members with follow-up support has the most promise.  Again, however, it is still too early to make more definitive statements.

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