Restorative Justice FAQs

What is restorative justice?

The idea of bringing together a victim of a crime and the person who committed that crime is based on age-old values of justice, accountability, and restoration. The United Nations Working Group on Restorative Justice defines it as: "A process whereby parties with a stake in a particular offense resolve collectively to deal with the aftermath of the offense and its implications for the future." 

What is the difference between restorative justice and our traditional legal system?
Traditionally when a crime is committed, the justice system has been primarily concerned with three questions: 

  • Who did it?
  • What laws were broken?
  • What should be done to punish or treat the offender?

This type of approach is considered retributive, where the intent is to get retribution or punishment for an offense committed. 

Restorative justice programs emphasize different questions: 

  • Who has been harmed?
  • What is the nature of the harm resulting from the crime?
  • What needs to be done to "make it right" or repair the harm?
  • Who is responsible for this repair?

The intent is to restore the victim and community affected by the crime as close as possible to pre-crime conditions. 

Why is it called restorative justice? Who is being restored?

Restorative justice focuses on harm to victims and community. By working collaboratively with victims, offenders and community members to repair the harm, restorative justice aims to restore relationships that have been broken by the offense. Restorative justice recognizes that it is not always possible to replace what a victim lost in the commission of the offense—the goal is to settle the matter as much as possible. In the process, it aims to restore the offender to a law-abiding life, and restore the damage caused by the offense to the community.

How widespread is restorative justice?

The initial conceptualization of restorative justice began in the late 1970s, largely in North America. In 1996 New Zealand adopted legislation mandating the use of restorative practices in young offender cases. Many jurisdictions, including Canada, United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and European countries have adopted restorative justice programs.

How effective are restorative justice processes?

Research has shown that victims who meet with those who have offended against them are far more likely to be satisfied with the justice system's response to their case than those who go though the normal justice process; that after meeting the offender, victims are significantly less fearful of being re-victimized; that offenders who meet with their victims are far more likely to complete their restitution obligation to the victim; and those who complete a restorative justice process are less likely to reoffend than those who don’t.

Can restorative justice be used in serious cases?

Restorative justice has the potential to meet needs that are not currently being met by the traditional justice system. The need for reconciliation and healing exists for all offenses, regardless of their severity. In fact, the experience of restorative justice often seems to be more meaningful for offenders, victims and community members when it involves a more serious case and the loss to the victim is more profound.

Is restorative justice "soft on crime"?

In the traditional justice system, offenders are not required to accept responsibility for their actions and are not held accountable. Many offenders proceed though the system with a lawyer who speaks on their behalf. Restorative justice offers a more demanding, active and clear opportunity for offenders to hold themselves directly accountable to the victim and the community they have harmed. Rather than being soft on crime, restorative justice requires the person who committed the offense to behave more responsibly by making amends to the victim and community. The human consequences of the offender's behavior are dealt with more directly though restorative justice than they are in the current criminal justice system.

Isn't it simpler just to go to court?

It may appear to be simpler to go to court. However, the restorative justice process allows people responsible for harm to repair the harm they've caused to the community and to the victim. By taking responsibility for their actions and repairing the harm to the best of their ability, offenders know that they have done what they could to make things better.

What if the victim does not want to participate in a restorative justice process?

Participation in programs is completely voluntary for all participants. One of the primary goals of restorative justice is to increase victims’ satisfaction with the system by giving them an active role in the justice process. Every effort is made, therefore, to provide victims with the information, preparation and support they need in order to participate in a restorative justice process. But some victims may not want to participate. In such cases a restorative justice process could still be held with others participating in the victim's place. For example, affected parties such as a family member or a member of the community in which the incident took place could talk about the impact the crime has had on them.

Is restorative justice appropriate for "victimless" crimes?

Certain offenses, such as drug offenses, while being so-called "victimless" crimes, do have a dramatic effect on an entire community. In cases such as these, restorative justice panel members represent the community in general and speak about the effects the crime has had on the community.

How is "community" defined for the purposes of restorative justice?

Community is defined as the "community of the incident": family members, key support people, and significant others for each party who have been affected by the offense. The community members in a restorative justice process will be specific to that particular case but tend to focus on where the incident occurred.

Do lawyers participate?

Parties referred to restorative justice are encouraged to consult with attorneys if they wish. However, attorneys do not typically participate in the restorative justice process.

What are some CJC restorative justice programs?

Restorative Justice Panels are made up of volunteers trained in restorative practices who meet with people who have committed offenses and their victims and supporters, if any, to have a conversation about what happened and what the offender can do to deepen his or her understanding of the harm, make amends to those who need it, make a positive connection with community and make a plan to not reoffend. The person who offended makes an agreement with the panel and has two to three months to complete what s/he has agreed to do. This is different from "community sentencing" in that the process is collaborative and all must agree to the outcome. 

Circles of Support and Accountability (COSAs) are groups of three volunteers and a staff person who work with someone (a “core member”) who is returning to his or her community from prison on what is called “conditional furlough” status. The core member has completed his or her minimum sentence but still has at least a year to serve before reaching his or her maximum. Conditional furlough has been described as “incarceration within the community” since the core member is still under Department of Corrections supervision and can be returned to prison if s/he violates the rules set forth in the written furlough.

Family Group Conferences engage a group of participants that includes the support people for both the victim and the offender, relevant professionals and a facilitator. All participants have an opportunity to talk about the offense, to express their feelings and concerns, and to get answers to their questions. All participants can also express opinions on how the offender should make amends. Many times the resulting agreement includes activities not only for the person who offended, but also commitments by supporters and family members to do what they can to help the offender stay on the right path and complete his or her agreement.

Community Conflict Assistance is offered free of charge to Montpelier residents by mediators who help to resolve neighbor disputes over things like property boundaries, animal complaints, noise and other neighborhood issues. Mediators are neutral parties who work with those in dispute to help them arrive at a mutually agreeable solution to the problem. 

Restorative Victim Services provide community-based emotional support and resource navigation to victims of property crimes in the immediate aftermath of the event. Victims are invited to participate in all restorative justice programs to the extent that they feel comfortable.

Do victims have to participate?

Victim participation is entirely voluntary. However, restorative justice is about bringing the offender, victim and community together in dialogue. It allows victims to hear what was going through the offender's mind at the time of the incident and what he or she has thought about since. Victims are encouraged to tell the story of how the incident affected them and ask questions of the offender to get information to help understand just what happened. 

What is expected of victims?

Victims can participate fully by doing an intake interview with an MCJC representative and by attending the Restorative Justice Panel meetings, or partially by appointing a representative or telling their story to a staff person who may relay it to panel members and the person who offended. 

What kinds of things are appropriate to ask for to “repair harm”?

To be “made whole” can mean restitution (e.g., to cover repairs), to request more information from the offender (e.g., asking, “Why did you choose my house?”), an apology — written or verbal — or service directly for the victim or at a community service site. A staff person asks victims about their needs and expectations ahead of time and help them to think about what is possible.