The Conservative Case for Restorative Justice
A new policy paper, Justice for All: How Restorative Justice Mutually Benefits Victims and Youth, identifies conservative principles associated with restorative justice. Published by nonpartisan public policy think tank R Street Institute with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the report also includes:
- an explanation of how restorative practices are transforming youth justice systems across the country;
- an evaluation of several restorative justice programs; and
- practical recommendations for effective implementation.
“R Street comes at issues from a center-right perspective, so I approached this project with some degree of skepticism,” says Logan Seacrest, the report’s author and a resident fellow at the R Street Institute. “But the more research I did, the more I realized that restorative justice fundamentally aligns with core conservative principles like personal responsibility, cost-effectiveness and limited government.”
A Center-Right Perspective on Restorative Justice
Seacrest argues that traditional court and detention systems are manifestations of a big-government approach to youth justice. Restorative practices reduce the need for intervention by the legal system in favor of personal intervention by families and communities. By providing an alternative to what Seacrest calls the “criminal justice industrial complex,” restorative justice embodies a limited-government philosophy that minimizes the state’s role in the lives of individuals.
He discusses current challenges and makes 10 recommendations for designing effective restorative justice programs:
- Make it the default.
- Guard against net-widening.
- Encourage creative restitution.
- Let law enforcement take the lead.
- Focus on deflection rather than diversion.
- Expand referral criteria.
- Maintain confidentiality.
- Screen for youth capacity.
- Require trauma-informed training.
- Track data.
“Sometimes you hear that restorative justice is too lenient or soft on crime,” Seacrest says. “I disagree with this characterization because a good program in no way excuses criminal behavior. On the contrary, it exposes young people to the difficult responsibility of seeing and hearing the consequences of their actions, demanding accountability through face-to-face dialogue with their victims.”
Providing a Venue for Reconciliation
Traditionally, juvenile justice has operated under a punitive model focused almost entirely on punishing the accused person, an approach that leaves little room for victims. In contrast, restorative justice empowers victims to define their own needs and regain a sense of agency and control. These are critical steps in transcending the experience of a crime and provides overall greater satisfaction with justice outcomes.
Restorative justice is becoming more common in the United States. Forty-five states have enacted laws supporting restorative justice, and 35 states have implemented it directly into the formal youth justice system, according to a 2022 National Conference of State Legislatures report. R Street’s paper highlights Nebraska’s restorative justice program, where participating youth have a 15% lower recidivism rate compared to those who go through the regular juvenile justice system.
“We know that restorative justice is an extremely effective response to offending behavior,” said Casey Senior Policy Associate Liane Rozzell. “Through its paper, R Street has made restorative justice practices understandable and accessible to a wider set of stakeholders who may not be familiar with this approach.”