Restorative Justice FAQs

What is restorative justice?

The idea of bringing together the person victimized by 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 person(s) who have been harmed and the community affected by the crime as closely as possible to pre-crime conditions. 

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

Restorative justice focuses on the harm caused to people and the community. By working collaboratively, the people harmed, those responsible for the harm, and community members aim to repair the harm and thereby restore relationships that have been broken by the offense. Restorative justice recognizes that it is not always possible to replace what was 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 person who committed the offense to a law-abiding life and repair 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, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and European countries have adopted restorative justice programs.

How effective are restorative justice processes?

Research has shown that the people 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 through the normal justice process; that after a restorative meeting, the people who were harmed are significantly less fearful of being re-victimized; that the people who caused harm who meet with the people they harmed are far more likely to complete their restitution obligations; and those who complete a restorative justice process are less likely to re-offend 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 all involved including community members when it involves a more serious case and the loss to the person(s) harmed 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 through the system with a lawyer who speaks on their behalf. Restorative justice offers a more demanding, active, and clear opportunity for people who committed an offense to hold themselves directly accountable to the person 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 person affected and the community. The human consequences of the offending behavior are dealt with more directly through 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 people who have been affected. By taking responsibility for their actions and repairing the harm to the best of their ability, those who have committed an offense know that they have done what they could to make things better.

What if the person who has been harmed does not want to participate in a restorative justice process?

Participation in the restorative programs is voluntary for all participants. One of the primary goals of restorative justice is to increase satisfaction with the system for the person affected by the offense by giving them an active role in the justice process. Every effort is made, therefore, to provide them with the information, preparation, and support they need in order to participate in a restorative justice process. But some people who have been harmed may not want to participate. In such cases, a restorative justice process can still be held with another person there to represent their interests such as the justice center’s Outreach Specialist or other 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 DUI and 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 programs 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 the people who have been affected and their supporters, if any, to have a conversation about what happened and what the person responsible for the harm can do to deepen their understanding of the harm, make amends to those who need it, make a positive connection with the community and make a plan to not re-offend. The person who offended makes an agreement with the panel and has two to three months to complete what they have agreed to do. This is different from "community sentencing" in that the process is collaborative and all involved contribute to shaping the restorative agreement and related tasks and activities to be completed. 

 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 person harmed and the person who caused harm, 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 amends should be made. 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 person who committed an offense stay on the right path and complete the restorative 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 Outreach Services provide community-based support and resource navigation to people victimized by property crimes in the immediate aftermath of the event. The people affected are invited to participate in all restorative justice programs to the extent that they feel comfortable and for what is most appropriate.

Are the people who have been harmed required to participate?

Participation by the people harmed s entirely voluntary. However, restorative justice is about bringing the people affected and the person responsible for the harm and community together in dialogue. It allows the people who have been affected hear about what the person who offended was thinking at the time of the incident and what they have thought about since. The people affected are encouraged to tell the story of how the incident impacted them and ask questions of the person responsible for the offense to get information to help better understand what happened. 

What is expected of the people who have been harmed?

The level of participation is up to the person who has been harmed. They can participate fully by doing an intake interview with an MCJC representative and 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 financial restitution (e.g., to cover repairs), to request more information from the person responsible for the offense (e.g., asking, “Why did you choose my house?”), an apology — written or verbal — or service directly for the person who has been harmed or at a community service site. A staff person asks those harmed about their needs and expectations ahead of time and helps them to think about what is possible and realistic.