Restorative Justice 101 for Victims

If it’s not Victim-Centered, it’s not Restorative, and it’s not Justice.

Among the more promising aspects of the growing awareness of crime victims’ needs during recent decades has been the exploration and implementation of “Restorative Justice” (RJ) practices, an important adjunct (especially when applied in Victim-Centered ways) to the mechanisms of our traditional justice system. A lot has been written about the supposed “ancient” roots of RJ principles, and their connections to indigenous tribal traditions – and there is certainly a clear connection where Circle traditions are utilized. But modern RJ theory and practice as it relates to Crime Victims/Survivors actually arose from the relatively recent concept of Victim Restitution. Indeed, Albert Eglash, the person widely credited with the first use of the term “restorative justice,” suggested in 1958 that it could be a powerful result of what he termed “creative restitution.” It began to develop more robustly in this country during the 1970s, but at some point, its victim-centered focus became overshadowed by a growing offender/rehabilitation-centered one, leaving many victims/survivors wondering what had happened to their understanding of what justice means.

The underlying principle of Restitution is the repair of harms. Victims/Survivors seeking a sense of healing and of justice can find in Restitution a measure of recompense and, as intended, even a measure of “restoration.” This is different from the way RJ is often understood today, which is to be focused more on the “interactions” between Victims/Survivors and Offenders as the “restorative” component, when all goes well. Experience has shown, however, that the quality and purpose of the interactions are critical, and even a “mediated” conversation between a Victim and an Offender doesn’t necessarily provide a path to healing or to a sense of justice for all Victims/Survivors. There may be many reasons for this but, to begin with, violent crime and violation are not “misunderstandings” to be resolved — even by intelligent and well-meaning mediators — especially when their work is neither survivor-trauma-informed nor offender-issue-informed. And while traditional RJ may be very different in nature from Victim-Centered VOD, our work is often considered under the umbrella of RJ, so its principles and distinctions bear reviewing.

Often unfairly called “retributive” justice, traditional 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?

In general, RJ can offer a more inclusive and personal approach to addressing harms. In cases of serious crime it does not obviate the need to sanction or punish offenders, as it has generally proven not to be an especially effective alternative to adjudication. On the other hand, RJ can enable the needs of Victims and Survivors to be more fully considered during the adjudication process. This is very different from the traditional system, which has often effectively excluded Victims and Survivors from almost every aspect of adjudication — except as “witnesses” — 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 most hopeful promise of restorative justice.

At its most elegant, RJ insists that Offenders be held to more personal account for what they have done — as distinct from being merely punished — because punishment alone is not enough. When Offenders are more personally accountable, which usually means facing their victims directly as they describe the impacts of the crimes, there is a dramatic increase in those victims’ sense of “being heard.” By the same token, when harms to victims are addressed — as opposed to harms to the law, or to society — the sense of “justice” among victims is also increased. Thus, two of the most 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 RJ practices than through traditional justice. But unless the RJ practices are sufficiently “Victim-Centered,” the practices can imperil Victims/Survivors — by bringing innumerable risks for emotional re-victimization by Offenders — or by inappropriately trained mediators or facilitators.

The risk for re-victimization of Victims has become more significant as the field of RJ work has drawn 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 Victim/Survivor experience, or the effects upon them of trauma and post-trauma. Nor, for that matter, do they always truly understand the nature and experience of Offenders, or of their thinking and behaviors. Thus, the field has experienced a shift in recent years, wherein the meaning of Restorative Justice in some circles has been effectively altered to emphasize its healing potential for Offenders — without much regard for the true needs of Victims/Survivors.

This and other factors have led committed victim advocates to establish such victim-centered initiatives as Parallel Justice, to counter our traditional justice system’s tendencies to protect the rights of the accused more than the rights of victims, and to counter the thinking about RJ that focuses more on offenders than on victims. So what originally began as an opportunity to allow harms to victims to be acknowledged in personal ways by offenders — as with Restitution — has sometimes left Victims/Survivors feeling even further victimized — by imposing uninvited and sometimes repugnant ideas of “reconciliation” or “balance” or “forgiveness” or “peacemaking” upon them. This is the peril of insufficiently Victim-Centered RJ practices.

For Victims/Survivors who are compelled by the idea and potential of RJ, there are options worth exploring — as long as they are aware that the phrase will mean very different things to different practitioners, depending on the practitioner’s frame of reference. But at the same time, RJ practices that are firmly and unambiguously anchored in addressing the needs of Victims/Survivors can be simultaneously sensitive to the needs of Offenders as they begin to comprehend the effects of their choices and actions upon those Victims/Survivors. When this “sensitivity” to Offenders is anchored by facilitators in service to the Victims/Survivors’ needs, it offers great promise for satisfaction among Victims/Survivors — even when the degrees of victimization are truly horrific. But it’s important to know that “restorative” and “balanced” justice approaches, and even “victim-sensitive” approaches, can fail Victims/Survivors when facilitators understand too little about the victimization experience. Facilitators should make clear to survivors who are drawn to the ideals of RJ that a thoroughly and completely Victim-Centered approach that simultaneously emphasizes Offender accountability is the safest and surest route to averting re-victimization of Victims/Survivors. Their journey toward healing and justice should not have to be “balancing act,” nor should it require “reconciliation,” unless that is explicitly what the Victim/Survivor wishes for, as an outcome.