How Can Restorative Justice Change the Criminal System?

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With mass incarceration under scrutiny, questions arise about alternatives to the punitive practice. One such set of alternatives–a process called restorative justice–is on the rise across the country in youth courts and schools.

Restorative justice has been practiced around the world for quite some time, but how do these dialogue-based alternatives to incarceration operate within the United States’ criminal justice system? Is restorative justice a radical means to advance social justice in an age of mass incarceration, or is it merely another way to reinforce the power structures of the current system? Read on to learn more.

Retributive Versus Restorative Justice

In order to appreciate the differences in approach that restorative justice poses, it is important to first understand that the United States’ criminal justice system operates under a retributive justice approach. Retributive justice is based on the idea of punishment, and the theory behind it is that the state is the ultimate victim of crimes and thus has the power to punish people it deems criminals. This domination-based form of justice is one basis for punishing “victimless crimes” such as drug offenses so harshly. Under retributive justice theories, the state is positioned as the victim.

In other words, the current criminal justice system’s emphasis on retributive justice relies on the logic that:

Retributivism answers the question ‘why punish’ by saying that the offender deserves punishment, and as simple as this statement sounds, its underlying meaning contains a couple of important points about morality and law.  Retributivism as a theory of punishment requires retribution as a rationale for law.  A retributionist assumes that the law exists for a reason — a moral reason.  All crime, even victimless crime, involves a social harm — a moral harm.  In other words, violating the law not only offends against the law of the land, but the moral code of the land.

Restorative justice, however, is grounded in an entirely different logic, philosophy, and practice. Restorative justice is defined by restorative agencies such as the Insight Prison Project as:

A philosophy and a social movement which provides an entirely different way of thinking about crime and victimization.  Our current retributive justice system focuses on punishment, regarding the state as the primary victim of criminal acts and casting victims and prisoners in passive roles. Restorative Justice, by contrast, focuses on healing and rehabilitation… It assumes that the persons most affected by crime should have the opportunity to become involved in resolving the conflict.  The goals of restoring losses, allowing prisoners to take responsibility for their actions, and helping victims move beyond their sense of vulnerability stand in sharp contrast to the conventional focus on past criminal behavior and increasing levels of punishment.

By taking the ideals of community and individual accountability and upholding the goal of mutual understanding and healing, restorative justice processes ensure that police, prosecutors, and judges are not the only ones with power over deciding someone’s fate after a crime has been committed. When prosecutorial and/or judicial discretion is utilized to make restorative processes available to people, the power of deciding how to move forward shifts to the person accused of committing a crime and the people most closely impacted by that crime.

This power shift can involve processes such as victim-offender mediation, conferencing, service provision, and “victim” assistance, as applicable. In the most well-known and widely used forms of restorative justice–mediated community conferences and circles–the offender(s), victims(s), and other closely impacted community members will come together in a mediated dialogue to address the context and harm done by the crime. During this process, the offender is expected to accept responsibility and agree to the group consensus of how to move forward, whether through community service, rehab, or other options. In these types of processes, the offender must agree to following through on the agreement; failing to do so will trigger a return to a traditional, retributive justice approach that will likely result in jail time.

Restorative Justice in Action

Currently in the U.S., restorative justice is most often used in the context of youth offenders and the juvenile justice system. Especially due to the extremely high rates of recidivism in the juvenile justice system, restorative justice, which often produces extremely low recidivism rates, is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to incarceration in many juvenile courts across the country.

Many schools are using restorative processes as a way to keep their youth out of the school-to-prison pipeline. By engaging in restorative processes of mediation, schools are doing the following:

Forging closer, franker relationships among students, teachers and administrators. It encourages young people to come up with meaningful reparations for their wrongdoing while challenging them to develop empathy for one another through “talking circles” led by facilitators.

These talking circles, a trademark of restorative processes, often serve as alternatives to the suspensions and expulsions that fuel the school-to-prison pipeline. By resisting racialized zero-tolerance policies that do not give students a chance to repair any harm they might have done–and that might have been done to them–restorative practices in schools give students, teachers, and administrators the opportunity to identify deeper causes of problems in schools that allow more holistic approaches to students acting out.

Schools from California to Colorado to New York are implementing and expanding their restorative justice programs in order to avoid shipping their students directly into the juvenile justice system. In New York City, restorative programming in schools is being used with increasing frequency and impact:

Over the past few years, the Department of Education has been building its capacity to implement restorative justice programs. The department has provided training to teachers from 55 middle and high schools through the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, which will be training 45 more schools this July and plans to add another 45 in the fall.

At Flushing International High School, where students hail from over 40 countries, social worker Tania Romero said that restorative practices have decreased incidences of violence between students of different nationalities and allowed for deeper conversations on issues like racism. “All schools should be entitled to this,” she said.

While experts acknowledge that restorative justice does not offer a quick fix either to juvenile justice or to schooling issues, many schools are becoming committed to advocating for the kinds of structural and cultural changes that can make restorative justice processes even more effective.

In other cases, however, restorative processes resemble traditional court processes more than they do school-based conferencing or mediation. In Brownsville, New York, for example, where youth of color are particularly targeted by the criminal justice system and jailed at extremely high rates, the city has established a youth court system in which youth offenders try and sentence each other to various sanctions, including community service, essay-writing, and tutoring. In this program, youth are trained for 30 hours and take a 16-page bar exam to prepare for the responsibility of trying and sentencing their peers. Though some might be skeptical of the ability of youth to effectively diminish the crime rates of their peers, the youth going through these restorative processes have a 93 percent compliance rate, which indicates an extremely low recidivism rate–much lower than that produced by the traditional juvenile justice system.

What Are We Trying to Restore?

Despite its success at lowering recidivism rates, restorative justice is often the recipient of criticism. Because restorative justice is a process that relies on the actions of those in the criminal justice system–judges and prosecutors must refer defendants or people convicted of crimes to restorative processes, and reserve the right to re-enact retributive processes if restorative methods are deemed ineffective–many people and organizations criticize restorative justice for being powerless to truly change the criminal justice system from within.

The co-opting of restorative processes by the state actually risks reinforcing the power structures that shape the harm done by crimes to begin with. For example, state-mandated restorative processes may force mediation event participants like police and youth of color together, ignoring the extreme power differences between these individuals and therefore ignoring structural power dynamics and risking perpetuating harm upon people who may have committed a particular crime, but who are also targeted by state violence.

As such, it is crucial to note that restorative practices may be practiced in disproportionate ways that ignore societal power structures. One study shows that schools with more Black students are less likely to use restorative processes because of racialized assumptions about the student population. Further, some question whether restorative practices are accessible to people living with certain dis/abilities.

What then does restorative justice seek to restore? If structural inequality was the baseline condition under which a crime was committed, is restorative justice satisfied with restoring that unjust baseline? Critics of restorative justice and advocates of the more structurally minded transformative justice argue that restorative justice, by nature of working within the criminal justice system, can never truly address these issues of systemic oppression.

So What’s the Verdict?

Restorative justice–especially in the context of the juvenile justice system–has tremendous potential to offer alternatives to incarceration for people who would otherwise be targeted for mass incarceration. Recidivism rates decline and community involvement increases, and these are all impacts that critics of mass incarceration certainly applaud. However, while restorative justice is certainly an important move toward reforming the criminal justice system as is, its lack of emphasis on structural and systemic oppression that is the basis for mass incarceration to begin with makes it an inadequate means of truly transforming the criminal justice system.



Oakland Unified School District: Welcome to Restorative Justice


Conflict Solutions Center: Retributive vs. Restorative Justice

Conflict Solutions Center: What is Mediation?

Partnership for Safety and Justice: Restorative and Transformative Justice: A Comparison

Insight Prison Project: A Restorative Justice Agency

Restorative Justice Online: What is Restorative Justice?

The New York Times: Opening Up, Students Transform a Vicious Cycle

Chalkbeat New York: City Preparing to Expand Restorative Justice Programs

National Public Radio: An Alternative to Suspension and Explusion: ‘Circle Up!’

New York Daily News: Teens are Judge and Jury in Brownsville Youth Court, Delivering “Restorative Justice”

PBS Newshour: To Curb Conflict, A Colorado High School Replaces Punishment with Conversation

Eastern Mennonite University Center for Justice and Peacebuilding: How Effective is Restorative Justice?

Restorative Justice Online: Restorative Justice in Schools: The Influence of Race on Restorative Discipline

Jennifer Polish
Jennifer Polish is an English PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center in NYC, where she studies non/human animals and the racialization of dis/ability in young adult literature. When she’s not yelling at the computer because Netflix is loading too slowly, she is editing her novel, doing activist-y things, running, or giving the computer a break and yelling at books instead. Contact Jennifer at



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