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Law school student asks: would victims really want restorative justice?

November 29, 2009

As I prepared my speech presentation I thought of this comment. It’s a fairly common one, actually. The public sees restorative justice as helpful to one party but not the other. Ironically, I would guess that most think that restorative justice is good for the victim and not the offender. The fact is restorative justice is good for both.

The excellent research of Drs. Heather Strang and Lawrence Sherman, at  the Australian National University and the University of Cambridge respectively, shows the value to both. But in addressing the student’s comment their research considered the value to the victim. It documents that victims are more satisfied after participating in restorative justice meetings or processes than with the traditional criminal justice system.

The student says a meeting between a victim and an offender “probably stirs up emotions unnecessarily and the session may turn into a shouting and crying match”. Certainly, emotions can run high but what we have learned in the RJ field is that the primary reason a victim chooses to participate in a RJ meeting is because he has questions. Crime victims area often frustrated and angry with the traditional criminal justice system and with good reason. Their needs are usually ignored. When considering restorative justice we start with the assumption that the victim has questions which often, if not always, only the offender can answer. What happens between the victim and offender (and perhaps other key players if the participants choose a family group conference) is something that is hard to predict. But what is so critical is that a victim has the right to meet the offender. That option should never be denied to the victim. 

In my work with victims I have learned they are increasingly asking for restorative justice as an option. With the right kind of preparation of victim and offender a productive meeting will occur that allows the victim to ask those questions as well as allowing the offender to answer them. By answering the questions and taking responsibility for his actions the offender learns and moves toward change and transformation. For the victim, there is a measure of healing and restoration that occurs.That is no waste of time.

But we no longer need to depend only on my opinion of restorative justice or some one else’s but instead we can rely on what crime victims say through well-documented evidence based research.  The body of research is growing worldwide. That research shows restorative justice works and the stories of victims, and offenders, testify to it working.  

I was excited to meet these students at the UC Davis Law School. The number of questions they posed during the question and answer portion of my presentation was very encouraging. In fact, I was very pleased to hear that a restorative justice working group had been established by the law students in this class. As I said during my speech, restorative justice IS the future. 


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