Restorative justice is an approach to criminal justice (or disciplinary issues, in schools) that aims to rehabilitate offenders through having them take responsibility, reconciling with victims, and repairing the harm experienced by people, relationships, and the community. It’s often contrasted with a retributive justice, which emphasizes punishment over rehabilitation. Retributive justice is based on a behavior change logic that argues that people will choose not to engage in a behavior that is associated with a harsh consequence, in a word, deterrence.
Restorative justice is based on a number of inter-related behavior change logics that argue that people will not engage in a behavior based on an array of conscious and subconscious processes including, in part, perceptions that the behavior will threaten a relationship they value, that there may be other more adaptive ways to meet needs, that with learning new social skills alternative ways of behaving may be possible, etc. Because restorative justice contends with a wider array of behavior change mechanisms that more comprehensively represent the human experience, it is considered a more humanistic approach to justice. While restorative justice is spreading, being far less costly in human and financial terms, many civic systems continue to employ retributive practices because of their relative simplicity and the superficial appeal of ‘getting even’ which is part of the Old Story.
In practice, restorative justice is often accomplished through a cooperative process that enables all willing stakeholders to connect and communicate about experiences, needs, feelings, and thoughts related to a harmful incident. Together, the group strives to identify needs, obligations, and responsibilities to establish accountability and repair harmful impact associated with the behavioral incident, thus rehabilitating the offender and restoring relationships across the community.
Summing up the difference between the two models of criminal justice, Bo Lozoff, a prominent activist in the field, has stated that while our present system says to an offender, “Hey get out of here!” a restorative justice system would say, “Hey, get back in here!”
Both restorative justice and principled nonviolence align with a core belief in the potential for all humans to experience personal transformation and their innate desire for connection. Many organizations within justice, education, and other community systems are moving this forward across the world, often with indigenous justice systems as a model.