Does Restorative Justice Let Offenders Off the Hook?

July 8, 2019, 6:41 pm

I had a conversation recently with a friend of mine about restorative justice. Although he supports restorative justice, he told me that many of the people close to him, people he loves and respects, think restorative justice lets offenders off the hook. They believe, he said, that restorative justice sweeps the offense under the rug, so to speak, in an effort to restore the offender to his or her former place. That’s a legitimate concern, but it misses the whole point of restorative justice. 

The practices of restorative justice do sometimes result in the restoration of an offender to wholeness. That wholeness, though, does not negate the role of the criminal justice system. That wholeness is in restored relationships, renewed value to the community, and wholeness of mind and spirit–which are all necessary to support a former offender’s commitment to right living. If this were the primary aim of restorative justice, it would be a worthy pursuit. But even these worthy outcomes are not the primary aim. 

Restorative justice is first and foremost about holding the offender responsible for the harms he caused and for making right those harms. Restorative justice is victim-centered, focused primarily on bringing wholeness to the one who was harmed. Both of these aims, holding an offender responsible for making right his wrongs and bringing wholeness to a victim, are often overlooked by the justice system. Instead, the focus is on removing the offender from society and punishing him. It often ignores the needs of the one who was wronged. The criminal justice system is offender-focused. Restorative justice attempts to redirect the focus to where it belongs: on the needs of the victim. 

For those who are skeptical of, or downright opposed to, restorative justice practices, I would ask what they believe should be the role of the criminal justice system. I suspect that the answer I’d receive has much to do with retribution. Offenders should be punished. They should forever bear the mark of shame for their past behavior, and society should forever shun them. While I agree that punishment often serves an important part of justice, whether it is in “balancing the scales” or serving as a deterrent to others, simply punishing offenders does not bring victims wholeness. It does not repair the harms the offender caused, and it does not bring an offender to hold himself accountable. 

When people suffer harms from another person, they have a right to confront their offender, if they so choose. They have the right to ask questions, even difficult questions that might not have easy answers. Victims have a right to express to the person who harmed them the impact that harm has had on them and the emotions they have experienced because of those harms. They ought to be able to express what they need from the offender, whether tangible restitution or intangible behaviors. A courtroom, while serving its purpose, is not a safe place for these critical acts of justice to take place. A courtroom is offender-focused, not victim-focused. 

Restorative justice does not let offenders off the hook. Rather, it demands more from them. It demands accountability, beyond the scope of a prison sentence. Restorative justice makes victims and their needs central. It prioritizes wholeness, healing, and restoration for victims. If offenders also find wholeness in the process, we ought to celebrate that someone who caused harm in the past is much less likely to do so in the future.

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