Criminology Restorative Justice
Janet Lauritsen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0047


Restorative justice refers to a general philosophy, model, or way of practicing justice that stands in contrast to many Western criminal and civil justice proceedings. Restorative justice practices have long historical roots and are known by a variety of names, including victim-offender mediation, community justice conferences, restorative or sentencing circles, victim-offender reconciliation programs, and reparative justice. In restorative justice practices, victims, offenders, and communities affected by a particular offense meet to find a way to “restore” or make amends for the harm resulting from an offense. Rather than rely on legal professionals or the state to render decisions about guilt or innocence and the appropriate type of punishment, restorative justice proceedings delegate that responsibility directly to the parties involved. Participants in restorative justice meetings or conferences vary across settings, ranging from relatively large groups that include a wide circle of supporters for victims and offenders, to smaller groups limited to the victim, offender, a mediator, and a handful of others. Participation in restorative justice proceedings is most often voluntary, typically offered as an alternative to some form of legal proceeding. The precise nature of the meetings also varies, sometimes involving relatively few rules, sometimes closely following a script for action and discussion. The key feature of the meetings is that victims and offenders, and oftentimes others, openly discuss the offense, how it has affected them, and what might be done to remedy the harm. Restorative justice programs are more common for juvenile or first-time offenders than adult or repeat-offenders, and are typically used as a diversionary program in lieu of a formal plea or criminal judgment. These programs also have been used for solving other kinds of problems and disputes, such as nursing home regulation and insurance fraud in lieu of civil litigation. Criminologists study restorative justice programs to determine whether such efforts provide better outcomes than traditional criminal justice system practices. The outcomes typically studied include victim satisfaction and restitution outcomes, and offender recidivism and perceptions of fairness. Evaluations of restorative justice primarily have been conducted for programs in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Canada, and the United States.

General Overviews

Early pioneers in this area of theory and research include criminologist John Braithwaite and Mark Umbreit, an expert in social work, as well as others. In the United States, Umbreit conducted some of the earliest quasi-experimental evaluations of victim-offender reconciliation programs. His multisite studies during the 1980s, summarized in Umbreit, et al. 1994, found that victims and offenders who participated in the reconciliation programs had better outcomes than those who did not participate in the programs. Victims reported more satisfaction if they took part in mediation meetings compared to the standard criminal justice process and also reported being more likely to receive an apology from the offender and less afraid of retaliation. Offenders who participated in restorative justice were more likely to pay restitution than those who were court ordered to do so and were more likely to view the process as fair. The issues Umbreit studied continue to inform contemporary evaluation of these programs. In addition, while most restorative justice programs are used for less serious crimes, Umbreit, et al. 2003 also discusses the application of such programs when the crimes are more serious, such as murder and rape. Key theoretical developments in restorative justice are found in the works of Braithwaite, especially the seminal Braithwaite 1989 and important later works such as Braithwaite 2002. Braithwaite’s theoretical work has been particularly important because his concept of reintegrative shaming stood in contrast to more popular deterrence theories and he showed why the assumptions underlying the latter model may be inaccurate or incomplete and why contemporary efforts to reduce recidivism may have failed. His theoretical work motivated the famous Canberra Reintegrative Shaming Experiments (RISE) project in which property, violent, and drunk-driving offenders were randomly assigned to either traditional criminal justice or restorative justice case processing. The results of these experiments have been mixed, finding that restorative justice either reduced or had no effect on recidivism, but in no instances had it significantly worsened recidivism rates. A useful summary of restorative justice theory and practice is provided in Braithwaite 1999. Restorative justice evaluations have grown considerably in number in recent years. Two useful edited volumes containing discussions about the various theoretical, political, and practical issues surrounding restorative justice practices are Weitekamp and Kerner 2003 and Von Hirsch, et al. 2003. All of the books noted in this section are accessible to educated readers and would be useful in college courses and to those who are interested in developing restorative justice alternatives in their own communities.

  • Braithwaite, John. 1989. Crime, shame, and reintegration. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The initial statement of the theory of “reintegrative shaming.” Argues that the treatment of offenders using reintegrative shaming policies will result in greater acceptance by offenders for the harm they have caused and as a result, produce lower rates of recidivism. A form of restorative justice, reintegrative shaming policies are argued to be more effective than punitive models of social control.

  • Braithwaite, John. 1999. Restorative justice: Assessing optimistic and pessimistic accounts. In Crime and justice: A review of research, Vol. 25. Edited by Michael H. Tonry, 1–127. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Provides an overview of the history of restorative justice ideas and summarizes and evaluates a series of optimistic and pessimistic concerns about restorative justice practices. Also includes discussion of how the theory and assumptions behind restorative justice models can be integrated with other theories of justice including deterrence and incapacitation.

  • Braithwaite, John. 2002. Restorative justice and responsive regulation. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Discusses the history of restorative justice practices across time, cultures, and religions; also discusses why such practices might lead to the successful resolution of various important social control problems ranging from nursing-home regulation and insurance fraud penalties to peace making between countries. Examples about how best to handle social conflicts are assessed and the challenges and successes of different resolution approaches are described.

  • Umbreit, Mark, Robert B. Coates, and Boris Kalanj. 1994. Victim meets offender: The importance of restorative justice and mediation. New York: Criminal Justice Press.

    Summarizes the earliest assessments of victim-offender reconciliation programs in the United States, discusses the operation of these programs and assessments of victim and offender outcomes, and comments on the practical issues involved in developing such programs.

  • Umbreit, Mark, Betty Vos, Robert B. Coates, and Katherine A. Brown. 2003. Facing violence: The path of restorative justice and dialogue. New York: Criminal Justice Press.

    Includes an assessment of two restorative justice programs in the United States in which serious crimes are involved. Discussions focus on the impressions of victims, offenders, and staff members who participated in restorative justice sessions involving crimes of murder and rape.

  • Von Hirsch, Andrew, Julian Roberts, Anthony E. Bottoms, Kent Roach, and Mara Schiff. 2003. Restorative justice and criminal justice: Competing or reconcilable paradigms. Portland, Oregon: Hart.

    Edited volume including chapters by leading scholars in the field debating the strengths and weaknesses of the restorative justice model and its practice for different types of crimes and disputes. Also included are discussions when and how restorative justice practices might replace punishments based on retribution and deterrence ideas.

  • Weitekamp, Elmar, and Hans-Jurgen Kerner. 2003. Restorative justice in context: International practice and directions. Willan.

    Edited volume including chapters by leading scholars in the field. Addresses the challenges and successes of restorative justice programs operating under more difficult circumstances, such as those involving serious violence, family violence, and corporate crime.

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