Restorative Justice: A Much-Needed Alternative to Mass Incarceration

Courts and schools across the country are looking beyond punishment.

In These Times Editors

Educators and administrators take part in a restorative justice training session at Lakeview Elementary School on March 14, 2013, in Oakland, Calif. The Oakland School District employs restorative justice practices to connect with students, lower suspension rates and reduce racial disparities in discipline within the schools. (Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
re•stor•a•tive jus•tice


  1. A response to crime or rule-break­ing that pri­or­i­tizes repair­ing the harm done to vic­tims and communities

When will our con­sciences grow so ten­der that we will act to pre­vent human mis­ery rather than avenge it?” —Eleanor Roosevelt

What does that actu­al­ly look like?

Restora­tive jus­tice pro­grams are increas­ing­ly com­mon with­in schools and non­prof­its, and 35 states have adopt­ed leg­is­la­tion encour­ag­ing the prac­tice. Men­tal health and drug courts aim to con­nect offend­ers with the treat­ment they need. Diver­sion pro­grams allow young peo­ple to avoid the con­ven­tion­al juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem and meet with those affect­ed by a crime (which can include the broad­er com­mu­ni­ty, fam­i­ly of a vic­tim or, if they so choose, the vic­tim them­selves) for a process of learn­ing, medi­a­tion and resti­tu­tion. Out­comes are non-puni­tive, and can include some form of direct assis­tance to the vic­tim as well as com­mit­ments from the offend­er to var­i­ous forms of com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment (includ­ing but not lim­it­ed to con­ven­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty service).

This sounds touchy-feely.

Maybe. But restora­tive jus­tice is also an urgent­ly need­ed alter­na­tive to lock­ing peo­ple up. In the U.S., one out of every 38 peo­ple is under some form of cor­rec­tion­al super­vi­sion, a cost­ly sys­tem that exac­er­bates racial and eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty with­out actu­al­ly stop­ping crime. In 2015, the school dis­trict of Jef­fer­son Parish, La., made head­lines when a Black eighth-grade stu­dent was arrest­ed and hand­cuffed in front of his class after throw­ing some Skit­tles. The dis­trict com­mit­ted to a new dis­ci­pline code and restora­tive jus­tice train­ing for teach­ers and staff, and in one school, sus­pen­sions — which are sta­tis­ti­cal­ly four times more like­ly to be giv­en to Black stu­dents — are down 56%.

So does restora­tive jus­tice work?

It’s look­ing good! There’s sol­id evi­dence that drug courts and alter­na­tive juve­nile jus­tice courts are more effec­tive at reduc­ing recidi­vism than tra­di­tion­al approach­es. In a num­ber of stud­ies, vic­tims of crimes pre­fer restora­tive jus­tice over the tra­di­tion­al court process, which can trig­ger the trau­ma of the crime all over again. This method does not require vic­tims to for­give any­one — and they often do not — but, unlike con­ven­tion­al tri­als, the process is designed to heal, address root caus­es and pre­vent offens­es from hap­pen­ing again. Pro­grams labeled as restora­tive jus­tice aren’t always a step in the right direc­tion. There are con­cerns that fee-based or pri­vate­ly oper­at­ed pro­grams may actu­al­ly exac­er­bate inequities. Viewed as part of a larg­er move­ment against mass incar­cer­a­tion and for a more peace­ful soci­ety, how­ev­er, restora­tive jus­tice is an impor­tant philosophy.

This is part of The Big Idea,” a month­ly series offer­ing brief intro­duc­tions to pro­gres­sive the­o­ries, poli­cies, tools and strate­gies that can help us envi­sion a world beyond cap­i­tal­ism. For recent In These Times cov­er­age of restora­tive jus­tice in action, see, To End Mass Incar­cer­a­tion, We Must Rethink How We Respond to Vio­lence” and Tri­al by Peace Cir­cle: How a Chica­go Com­mu­ni­ty Is Pur­su­ing Jail-Free Justice.”

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