What is Restorative Justice for Young People?
The Annie E. Casey Foundation invests in the promotion and implementation of restorative justice practices, which aim to build a sense of community while responding to conflict and harm. These practices are gaining traction in schools and communities across the country, among youth development and youth justice experts as well as those who have experienced crime.
Restorative justice conferences and similar strategies bring together people who have caused harm and those they have harmed. The parties involved talk about what happened and collaborate on an appropriate solution — with accountability and fairness — outside of a more adversarial court proceeding.
Many restorative justice proponents and others find the terms victim and offender to be stigmatizing and use the terms harmed party and responsible party instead. This blog post reflects the language preferences of restorative justice practitioners.
The Benefits of Restorative Justice
When done well, restorative justice practices achieve a series of desirable results.
Those who are responsible for causing harm:
- Take responsibility for their actions, which helps them manage conflict, build empathy and mature into emotionally healthy adults; and
- Are more likely to stay out of trouble compared to youth who are adjudicated in court.
Those who have been harmed:
- Report being more satisfied with restorative justice than court proceedings.
How Does Restorative Justice Work?
Restorative justice uses highly trained facilitators to help connect the responsible party with the harmed party as well as with supportive family and community members. The group works together to determine the appropriate response and, if possible, repair involved.
Once everyone agrees to participate in the process, the facilitators work separately with all parties to prepare them for a restorative conference. In this conference, the parties discuss what happened.
- The person harmed has an opportunity to share how they were affected and what they need to heal.
- The young person assumes responsibility for causing harm and articulates what they need to reduce the likelihood of it happening again.
- The facilitator helps participants reach an agreement that meets everyone’s needs. Solutions might include financial restitution, replacing items that were broken or lost or completing certain chores on behalf of the person or community harmed.
“When implemented with fidelity, restorative justice offers people who have been harmed opportunities to get their needs met that surpass what is available in the adversarial court system, and it opens a path to true accountability for people who have been responsible for harm,” says Liane Rozzell, a senior policy associate with the Casey Foundation. “That’s a win all around.”
Restorative Justice vs. Current Justice Approaches
Current justice approaches are punitive. They define which laws were broken, who broke them and how the justice system should deliver punishment.
Restorative justice focuses on healing and accountability. It identifies who was harmed; what they need to heal; and whose obligation is it to meet those needs.
Restorative justice offers a genuine opportunity for young people to take accountability for their actions while avoiding the high recidivism rates and separation from home, school and work associated with confinement.
“People can confuse accountability and punishment, but they are not the same,” says Rozzell. Accountability — according to restorative justice practitioners — involves taking responsibility for your actions; acknowledging the effects of those actions; expressing remorse; taking action, guided by those you have harmed, to repair the harm; and no longer committing similar harm.
The restorative approach has roots in longstanding indigenous practices and knowledge, which are described in “The Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice” that Casey helped fund when it was published in 2019.
Is Restorative Justice Effective?
Restorative justice works — and it works better than the longstanding alternative, research suggests. A 2021 Department of Justice literature review concluded that “youths who participate in restorative justice programs are less likely to reoffend, compared with youths who are processed in the juvenile justice system.”
One study of youth who had committed serious offenses — such as robbery, burglary, car theft and assault and battery — found that those who participated in a restorative justice conference were 44% less likely to recidivate than those who were prosecuted in court for the same offenses. People who have been harmed also have positive things to say about their experiences with restorative justice.
The same study cited above — involving youth who had committed serious offenses — found that 91% of the people harmed expressed a willingness to participate in another conference and recommend the process to a friend.
Another study, this one by the nonpartisan nonprofit Justice Research and Statistics Association, found that people who had been harmed by youth reported higher levels of satisfaction with restorative justice when compared to their counterparts in court. In addition, restorative justice appears to top standard justice procedures in terms of helping those harmed manage symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
What’s the Connection Between Restorative Justice and Racial Equity?
As with other approaches, equity in restorative justice diversion hinges on equitable implementation practices. Generally speaking, youth of color have had fewer opportunities to experience this alternative when compared to their white peers.
There are multiple reasons why this inequity exists, including the persistence of subjective or unnecessarily restrictive eligibility criteria. For example: Limiting restorative justice to first-time offenders puts young people in heavily policed neighborhoods at a disadvantage, since they are more likely to cross paths with the justice system.
Restorative justice programs that address racial and ethnic disparities use data to target disproportionalities, extend eligibility to people with prior offenses, avoid subjective criteria and seek out facilitators and program leaders who represent the youth and communities they serve.
What Kinds of Offenses Should Restorative Justice Be Used For?
Restorative justice interventions have been effective for a range of offenses, and this includes serious crimes, such as assault and robbery. The approach can be appropriate when two factors are obvious: the impact on the harmed party and the need for the responsible person to make amends and ensure they don’t inflict further harm.
As executive director of Raphah Institute, Travis Claybrooks facilitates restorative justice conferences in Nashville. He urges young people who are wrongly accused of causing harm to “get an attorney and fight.” But, for young people who did commit harm, he points to restorative justice as “a way for you to begin to take responsibility and make that right.”
Related Resources on Restorative Justice
Webinar series: Exploring Restorative Justice