Restorative Justice 101 for Victims: If it’s not Victim-Centered, it’s not Restorative, and it’s not Justice.

One of the more promising aspects of the growing awareness of crime victims’ needs in recent years has been in “restorative justice,” an encouraging adjunct to our traditional system.

At its most elegant, restorative justice insists that offenders be held personally accountable for what they have done – as distinct from being merely punished.

Our traditional system, sometimes described as “retributive justice,”  asks three basic questions:

  • What laws have been broken?
  • Who broke these laws?
  • How shall the lawbreaker be punished?

The fundamental questions of restorative justice, on the other hand, are:

  • Who has been harmed?
  • How can these harms be addressed or repaired?
  • Who should address or repair the harms?

Restorative justice can in many cases offer a much more inclusive and personal approach to addressing harms. It does not dispute the need to sanction or punish offenders, but it does presume that punishment alone is not enough, and it can enable the personal needs of victims to be more fully considered during the process of adjudication. This is very different from the traditional system, which effectively excludes victims from almost every aspect of adjudication – as if the State itself were the party harmed; as if the victimization or violation were not personal. But victimization is personal, and therein lies the promise of restorative justice.

At its most elegant, restorative justice insists that offenders be held personally accountable for what they have done – as distinct from being merely punished. When offenders are more personally accountable, which usually means facing their victims directly in order to listen as they describe the impacts of the crimes, there is a dramatic increase in the victims’ sense of “being heard.” By the same token, when harms to victims are addressed – as opposed to harms to the law – the hope for achieving a sense of “justice” among victims is also dramatically increased. Thus, two of the most critically important needs for victims in the aftermath of victimization – a sense of being heard, and a sense of justice – can sometimes be more effectively enabled through restorative justice practices than through our traditional approaches. Unfortunately, unless the restorative justice practices are sufficiently “victim-centered,” or focused on the needs of victims, these practices can also imperil victims – by bringing risks for emotional re-victimization.

The risk for re-victimization of victims has become more significant as the field of restorative justice work has attracted individuals of heart and conscience who believe deeply in the power of “reconciliation” and “forgiveness” for victims and offenders – but who have little or no direct understanding of the depth of the victim experience, or the effects of trauma and post-trauma. Or the realities of the offender experience, for that matter. The result is that, in recent years, a shift has been occurring in the field, effectively altering the meaning of restorative justice in some circles to emphasize its healing potential for offenders over victims.

This and other factors have led some victims’ rights groups to launch a victim-centered initiative called “parallel justice” to counter the tendency of our traditional criminal justice system to confer more rights upon the accused than upon victims, and restorative justice thinking to focus more on offenders than victims. Thus, what began as an opportunity to allow harms to victims to be acknowledged in personal ways by offenders has, in some cases, left victims feeling further victimized – by imposing uninvited and sometimes repugnant ideas of “peacemaking” or “reconciliation” or “balance” or “forgiveness” upon them. This is the peril of restorative justice practices that are insufficiently victim-centered.

For victims/survivors engaged by the idea and potential of restorative justice, there are opportunities worth exploring – as long as they remain aware that the words will mean different things to different people, depending on their frame of reference. Restorative justice practices that are firmly and unambiguously anchored in addressing the needs of victims can be simultaneously sensitive to the needs of offenders as they start to comprehend the effects of their acts upon those victims. Such practices offer the greatest potential “satisfaction” for victims – even when the degrees of victimization and violation are indescribably horrific. But it’s important to know that “restorative justice” and “balanced justice” approaches can sometimes fail at understanding enough about the victim experience; as can the so-called “victim-sensitive” practices. But if the overall notion of restorative justice appeals to you, inquire into the underlying philosophy of specific programs. And accept no less than a clearly and completely “victim-centered” approach that also emphasizes offender accountability. The ongoing journey to healing from victimization and violation should not have to be a “balancing” act, nor should it require “reconciliation.”