What Is Restorative Justice for Young People?

Posted May 24, 2022
Young black man sits in a room with other seated individuals. Everyone appears to be sitting in a circle arrangement.

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:

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

Report: Expand the Use of Diver­sion From the Juve­nile Jus­tice System

Video: Car­ing Adults Kept Aure­lia on Track

Webi­nar series: Explor­ing Restora­tive Justice

Blog post: Four Ways to Trans­form Juve­nile Jus­tice Now

Blog post: New Report Doc­u­ments Con­tin­u­ing Ram­pant Mal­treat­ment of Incar­cer­at­ed Youth

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